The right to despair?

July 18, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher

I THINK FIRST of the irony of it: that the medicine used to combat a woman's despair should become the instrument of her death. On July 4, Myrna Lebov, a 52-year-old Manhattan woman, finally gave up her 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis, downing a deadly strawberry milkshake laced with a massive dose of the anti-depressant amitriptyline, which her husband, George Delury, had carefully prepared for her.

For his crime or his compassion, George Delury faces second-degree manslaughter charges and up to 15 years in prison. The case seems tailor-made to arouse sympathy for the burgeoning movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Indeed, among the books found in the couple's two-bedroom apartment was a copy of Derek Humphry's suicide primer, "Final Exit."

Crime or compassion? That is the question. For me, the horror comes not so much from what George and Myrna between them did in despair that dark night, but from the reaction of the community afterward in the light of day. Listen to the voices of light and reason, speaking to the Myrnas of the world from across the vast gulf of our own health, hope, happiness.

"I'm pleased she had such a great husband that would do that," one neighbor volunteered. "He should be given a medal," Dr. Jack Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, said. Offering a poisoned milkshake to an MS victim is "no more a crime than providing food to someone who is hungry." And in a remarkably (( romantic description of suicide, New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser laments that the law does not permit such "death by choice," which she describes as "a gentle exercise of free will by consenting adults."

Do you hear what we are saying?

This was not a case where a dying person's life was being monstrously prolonged by intrusive technology. Myrna Lebov was not dying, nor was she even in uncontrollable physical pain. What she shared with most sick people who commit suicide was a profound depression -- a depression which no doubt grew worse and more unassailable once she apparently began hoarding anti-depressants instead of taking them.

If we refuse to treat her killing as a crime, we become accomplices in her depression. After all, when a 17-year-old kid filled with adolescent angst threatens to hang himself, we intervene. When a 45-year-old woman whose husband has left her downs a vial of pills, we rush to pump her stomach; when a man who's lost everything tries to leap off a building ledge, the police pull him back, and lock him up in a loony bin if necessary, until he comes to his right mind. This is our way of telling these people that whatever they may feel about themselves, we believe their lives are valuable.

By contrast, in accepting Myrna Lebov's killing as an act of mercy, we are saying that we agree with her own estimate of her life. In this case, we are saying that suicide is a rational decision, which we will not only accept but also facilitate, with frothy pink poison, or better yet a physician's syringe.

"Compassion" means suffering with. Caring for the chronically ill makes great demands, first on families and secondly on society's resources. People in Myrna Lebov's condition understand all too well that they are a burden. If killing oneself is at all permissible, it seems to me that in situations like this it will soon become morally (if not legally) obligatory. How can the old and sick ask children, spouses, neighbors to make tremendous sacrifices of their own time, money, energy -- their very lives -- if all the while there is this supposedly courageous, noble and righteous alternative? We need not make it explicit. Many, already depressed by their disease, will get the message and lighten our burdens for us.

In this way our newly created right to suicide quickly descends into a duty to die.

Death with dignity they can call it. But I would only wish it on a dog.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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