By Daniel Gross
Just before Christmas in 1950, Nurse Jan tried to kill her father. He was dying of a painful illness, so she injected him with five times the recommended dose of narcotic. A letter to the Washington Post applauded the news. Editors of the Newark Times, the Providence Bulletin, and the Ontario Spectator each objected. Half a century before anyone had heard of Schiavo or Quinlan or Kevorkian, a private family drama had become a lightning rod for public opinion.
Nurse Jan, however, was a character in a comic strip called Rex Morgan M.D., a series created by the real-life physician Nicholas Dallis. The comic strip’s syndicate, which distributed Rex Morgan to hundreds of newspapers, received concerned letters from the editors who carried the comic. The Newark Times went so far as to pull the strip from its pages, emphasizing that mercy killings “had no place” on the comics page. In response to the inquiries, Rex Morgan‘s syndicate responded that later issues would indeed examine the dilemma of euthanasia. But Dr. Morgan would remember his Hippocratic Oath.
The syndicate meant that Dr. Morgan would never accept a mercy killing on his watch, but its statement really isn’t that reassuring. Oaths change: in 1993, only 14 percent of physicians’ oaths prohibited euthanasia. Classical versions of the Hippocratic Oath certainly did prohibit treatments that deliberately caused death. Yet if Nurse Jan had read the first few lines of the classical oath, she would have read a lesser-known directive: “To hold him who has taught me [medicine] as equal to my parents.” So maybe Nurse Jan should have tried to kill Dr. Morgan, too. Vestigial mandates like this one might explain why in 2000, less than half of U.S. medical schools administered even a modified version of the Hippocratic Oath.
It’s likely true that we change our oaths as society shifts. The year after 14 percent of new doctors pledged not to kill, Oregon became the first state to pass a “Death with Dignity Act.” Oregon doctors – at least after a lengthy battle in the U.S. Supreme Court – would be able to give their patients medicine to end life.
But it’s harder to know exactly what the shifts are. As medical ethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel has written, the arguments for and against mercy killing haven’t changed much in thousands of years. Death can prevent suffering, proponents have tended to argue; killing is always wrong, critics have said, or health care providers simply shouldn’t wield that kind of power.
This has always been the problem in studying euthanasia. Why is euthanasia more permissible today than it used to be? We can’t really say that death means less than it used to, or that suffering means more. We can’t quite argue that doctors finally understand scientific limits, so they’ve learned when to quit – after all, euthanasia represents the edge of the map for modern medicine, where therapeutic intervention admits that it’s lost. We can’t even say that doctors have become more powerful in recent decades: in the age of patient rights, we’re as fond as ever of restricting (and litigating against) our physicians.
When the Newark Times pulled Rex Morgan M.D. from its comics page, it apparently disapproved of even the mention of euthanasia in the publication. Its editors sent the message that euthanasia, like rape or torture, was too heinous even to talk about. It was an odd stance, given that our society and its comic strips routinely portrays actual murder – if only to reinforce its wrongness in superhero movies and crime TV shows.
But that may be what made euthanasia interesting in the first place. We resolve most of our dilemmas by argument. The truly challenging dilemmas are the ones we’d rather not discuss.