Euthanasia lingers in ethical gray area

A smoking revolver, one dead woman and a confession from the very man who committed the act — the evidence for murder is all there in the details of Arizona man George Sanders’ “mercy killing” of his 81-year-old wife, Virginia.

Lost in the distant objectivity of the headlines, however, is a heartbreaking story of love, disease and a husband’s courageous decision to put an end to his wife’s battle with multiple sclerosis.

Xingzhou Zhu | Daily Trojan

Xingzhou Zhu | Daily Trojan

Last November, 86-year-old Sanders took a shotgun and fatally shot his wife, who he said had begged to be killed. This past week, Sanders was given probation after pleading guilty to manslaughter.

To some, Sanders got away with murder. But though voluntary euthanasia is a subject mired in ethical controversy, Sanders’ actions reveals how inadequacies in the medical system and the sheer suffering involved in terminal diseases can push ordinary people to behave extraordinarily.

The story of the Sanders is, for one, an absolute tearjerker.

According to the Huffington Post, George Sanders loved his wife from the moment he met her, when she was 15, to her last days at 81. In 1969, Virginia was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. George Sanders became her sole caregiver.

“He cooked for her, cleaned the house, did laundry, put on her makeup and would take her to the beauty salon where he’d hold her hands up so she could get her nails done,” the HuffPo reported.

Right before her death, Virginia Sanders was set to be admitted to a nursing home. George Sanders said during his interrogation that “It was just the last straw. … She didn’t want to go to the hospital.” And so, after some hesitation, he killed her.

A crime is a crime, but considering the difficult circumstances, the two-year probation sentence is exactly what the judge of the case dubbed it: a punishment that “tempers justice with mercy.” George Sanders’ story is one that many should be able to empathize with, especially considering the pressure he must have felt to relieve a loved one who begs to be freed from an unbearable misery.

But the ongoing debates on the right to die and voluntary euthanasia don’t end with the Sanders’ story. Though voluntary euthanasia is partly or wholly illegal in most U.S. states, there are decent arguments for both sides of the controversy.

On one side, opponents of  voluntary euthanasia argue that the act not only weakens society’s respect for the sanctity of life, but also undermines the motivation to provide quality care for the dying as well as the life’s work of doctors and nurses dedicated to saving lives.

Others claim voluntary euthanasia’s implementation would, more than anything, discourage the search for new cures and treatments for the terminally ill. Society’s acceptance of euthanasia could also increase the pressures that selfish families place on elderly relatives.

On the other hand, proponents of euthanasia argue that people do have the right to die and to decide what happens to their bodies — because, after all, it is not ethical to restrict individuals’ liberties, even if that includes killing oneself.

Yet, euthanasia is clearly not the right path for anyone, not only because of societal repercussions, but because of the burden of guilt that the family members like George Sanders might shoulder after the fact.

Regardless of whether his wife begged him to shoot or not, the stigma of knowing that he caused her death will be something that George Sanders will live with. Yes, he did shoot his wife out of love, but it’s also unfortunate that better alternatives weren’t out there.

Perhaps one day, with the expansion of cutting-edge palliative care as well as cures or treatments for diseases as devastating as multiple sclerosis, voluntary euthanasia will become an option of the past. Or perhaps a growth in the acceptance of physician aid-in-dying will allow people like Virginia Sanders to die in a more dignified fashion.

One should not have to feel the need to resort to such a violent form of euthanasia in order to set someone free. But it seems that, for the time being, people such as the Sanders are left with few alternative choices.


Valerie Yu is a freshman majoring in biological sciences and English. Her column “Heart of the Matter” runs Fridays.

2 replies
  1. Gwenfrewi
    Gwenfrewi says:

    Agreed, it is a very well-thought-out article.

    But I can’t agree with John that medically assisted dying should be legalized. In both Oregon and the Netherlands, the numbers of people requesting death on the grounds that they don’t want to become a burden on others has risen year on year, strongly suggesting an abuse of the law. Further, – in both places, palliative care in a hospice setting has declined dramatically, – what need for a hospice when you can just offer a quick death instead? This can’t be the way we want society to go.

  2. John Warren
    John Warren says:

    Great article, Valerie. There is some suffering that only death can end.
    I think that we should be allowed to make the decision on on when to end our own life at a time and in a situation that we decide. Medically assisted dying is not for everyone but everyone should have the right to choose.
    The sooner that the laws relating to assisted suicide are changed to allow for medically assisted dying under controls similar to those that are in place now in Oregon, Washington, the Netherlands, Belgiuma nd Swizerland the better.

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