New York’s supreme court began weighing up arguments for and against physician-assisted suicide this week, so it was no surprise that the New York Times reported the euthanasia death in British Columbia of an expatriate New Yorker.
What was surprising, writes bioethicist Franklin Miller, of Weill Cornell Medical College, was the tone, spread and length of the feature. Published on May 25, a photo of John Shields, the dead man, took up a quarter of the front page, and there were five full pages of text and images inside the newspaper.
Dr Miller supports physician assisted suicide for the terminally ill, but he found the gushing coverage alarming. He writes in the The Hastings Center blog:
It seems significant that the New York Times—an arbiter of culture—devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to a planned, physician-assisted death [PAS] and the rituals associated with it. There is a human interest story here, but the article had scant discussion of the ethical and policy issues raised by Canada’s form of legalized medical assistance in dying. Presented to the readers, in lavish detail, as the “Gift of Death,” with a very appealing protagonist, this article romanticizes the death of John Shields. More importantly, I see it as describing, and prescribing, a model for the good death in North America today.
Dr Miller insists that PAS is not the only “good death”, but the coverage implies that it may be the best way to depart this world. “Letting death happen, with the aid of palliative care, is no less good than making it happen,” Dr Miller argues. “We should beware of prescribing a particular form of ‘death with dignity’ as a model for the end of life and not acknowledging other perspectives.”
The article was not a model of the Times’s new slogan “discover the truth with us”. As Miller points out, the article shed no light at all upon the ethical, medical and social complexities of Canada’s new legislation for euthanasia, or medical assistance in dying (MAID), as it is called in Canada. Mr Shields, a former Catholic priest who found a new career as a union organiser in BC and, in retirement, as an environmental activist, was terminally ill, although he was not suffering unbearable pain. But he did fear becoming dependent. He fit the profile of most euthanasia patients: worried, white, and well-off. From the Times’s account, it appears that the hospice doctors were not top-notch palliative care experts.
As in other portrayals of assisted dying, a cool, competent, compassionate doctor becomes a central figure in the narrative. In this case, she was a 48-year-old mother of two, Stefanie Green, who is so committed to euthanasia that she attended a conference in the Netherlands a month before it became legal. It seems relevant to coverage of Mr Shields’s death that she is also the founder of the Canadian Association of MAID Assessors and Providers and has been involved in a quarrel with the BC government about insufficient compensation for euthanasia services. But nothing was mentioned about this in the article.
This article is published by
and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines
. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us
for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.