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Don’t Ask Dr. Welby

by | Oct 14, 2013

Editor’s note. This editorial appeared in the February 5, 1987 edition of National Right to Life News and is this week’s opening sample of the best of NRL News going back to 1973. They are collectively our year-long “Roe at 40” series. This particular piece was written a juncture when media sympathy for “mercy killings” seemed to be reaching a fever pitch.

Robert Young

Robert Young

Even knowing about it in advance couldn’t cushion the shock. There he was, America’s Father Figure, Robert Young, portraying convicted “mercy killer” Roswell Gilbert. It was like watching Captain Kangaroo play a convicted child abuser. As drama, NBC’s “Mercy or Murder?” was not about to remind anyone of Playhouse 90 and the golden age of television. The two-hour made-for-television movie can best be described as wooden, saved only by a strong performance by Mr. Young as Roswell Gilbert.

But, then again, dramaturgy was not the issue: polemics were. Of course, writer-director Steven Gethers dutifully pretended that NBC’s alleged insistence on “balance” had not been needed; he intended all along to present both sides. And they did: 95% sympathetic to Gilbert’s decision to shoot his wife, Emily, twice in the head; 5% oh-so-gently critical. However, Mr. Young was more candid. As he matter-of-factly told the relentlessly pro-euthanasia New York Times, “I suppose this film may be one small step in the campaign to change law to consider euthanasia as a form of justifiable homicide.” Indeed! Young, now approaching 80, made no secret of his sympathy for Gilbert. He was almost as contemptuous of the complaint that Gilbert had employed a particularly violent method to kill his wife as was Gilbert himself. After all, Young said, Gilbert was a gun collector, “and I think he felt that was the quickest and most painless method.” Young went so far as to tell Associated Press’s Jerry Buck that “In truth, what we’re telling is a love story.”

Now, needless to say, having Jim Anderson of “Father knows Best” and Marcus Welby of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” make the case for blowing one’s spouse away was a coup of the first magnitude for the suddenly robust pro-euthanasia movement. But mercy or murder is hardly the first example of pop culture’s fondness for sentimental homicide. As Tom Marzen reminds us in his essay in NRLC’s book, “Window on the Future,” the breakthroughs made by groups such as the Society for the Right to Die and the Hemlock Society were not the results exclusively of a hyperactive judiciary and a complaint American Medical association. No-fault homicide’s popularity widened because its roots had deepened, becoming a staple of popular culture. To cite just two examples, there was Betty Rollin’s bestseller, “Last Wish,” which accounted in detail Ms. Rollin’s indispensible role in her mother’s death-by-suicide. And there is Judith Viorst’s well-received book, “Necessary Losses,” which treats suicide as the “last step forward.” Done gracefully, “self-murder” can be, we are told, a crowning achievement, particularly for the mousey set who have lived lackluster lives.

1987 started off on the same wrong foot (January 11) with NBC’s ridiculously one-sided presentation of the Gilbert murder. Now if it weren’t enough of an unfair advantage to have Mr. Young play the lead, the details of Mrs. Gilbert’s condition are precisely the kind most likely to soften many people’s remaining resistance to “mercy killing. Emily Gilbert, like millions of other older Americans, had Alzheimer’s disease, a relentlessly progressive impairment of intellectual function culminating in total incompetence and complete dependence. In addition, she also suffered from osteoporosis, a painful bone disease. Gilbert, at his trial (and as projected by Mr. Young in the movie) maintained that he had no choice but to kill his ailing wife. It was Gilbert insisted, an “act of love.” Broward County prosecutor Kelly Hancock said he did not deny that Gilbert loved his wife, “but the state’s contention is that he loved himself more. Emily became a problem to him and he had to solve that problem.” (Gilbert’s own impatient comments about his wife’s psychotic dependence” lends conservable weight to Hancock’s allegations.)

What, if anything will be the fallout from “Mercy or Murder?” Gilbert’s daughter, Martha Moran, told USA Today that she hoped the movie’s portrayal of her parents’ relationship would light a fire under the new Florida Governor, Robert Martinez. Gilbert, you may recall, was almost given clemency in August 1985 by the Florida cabinet sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency. Then governor and then [at the time of this editorial] Senator Bob Graham had recommended clemency but fell one vote short of the four votes needed to free Gilbert while he appealed his case to higher state courts. (A spokesman for Martinez told USA Today that the governor had not seen the film and was unlikely to reopen Gilbert’s case.)

The 75-year-old Gilbert remains unrepentant. He continues to stubbornly insist he had done nothing wrong. Indeed, the more time passes, the more convinced Gilbert grows of the rectitude of his actions. “I feel upset,” he once said, “because I did not commit a moral crime.” More than once, he has insisted “public sympathy” will get him out of Avon Park Corrections Institution in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He is especially adamant that rather than criticize him for shooting his wife, people ought to appreciate that Gilbert chose a quick, painless method—“she never saw it coming.” And it is clear that many in the media have warmed up to him for the “integrity” the retired electrical engineer demonstrated by refusing to be remorseful on the witness stand. One reporter perhaps caught Gilbert’s real motivation: as much as he wants to be released from his mandatory 25-year-sentence for first-degree murder he wants vindication. His answer to one reporter’s question—“So is there no anger at all?”—is most revealing: “Just with this system that can’t seem to accommodate compassion.”

I am convinced there really is something to the idea of the “spirit of the times.” As the Indianapolis Star brilliantly editorialized, one of the “disturbing tremors” from the Gilbert case is the suggestion that “Americans may be inching their way toward a consensus that murdering out of kindness is moral and legal.” (It is not insignificant that one television critic saw the issue raised by Mrs. Gilbert’s death as a choice between seeing her husband as “a murderer or a man of rare conscience.”) It is amazing how forgiving, how understanding Americas are to killing our elderly kin, provided the killer’s heart is seen to be in the right place. And where will it stop? No one knows.

No doubt USA Today missed the irony when alongside one of its frequent laudatory profiles of Mr. Gilbert, it placed a short story summarizing the then-current “mercy killings.” The list started with a man who suffocated his wife who was dying of cancer, went on to a man who had shot to death his three-year-old daughter who was “brain dead,” followed by the case of a man who strangled his wife whose “crime” it was to have broken her hip, culminating with the suffocation death of still another woman who had arthritis!

Readers of NRL News will remember the surge of community sympathy a few years ago for a man who tore his five-day-old baby from his incubator and bashed the child’s head repeatedly against the floor. His neighbors defended the guy as a community stalwart who would never it do it again. (After all, what were the odds of his wife having another baby with a cleft palate, harelip, and clenched fists?)

John J. McMahon, the executive producer or “Mercy or Murder?” told the New York Times it was true that the Gilbert role was nothing like Mr. Young’s television roles. “But I’m a real old movie buff,” he said, “and Mr. Young’s movie career was very eclectic…His role in “The Enchanted Cottage,” which is one of my favorite movies, was a very demanding dramatic role.”

I remember that movie as well. Mr. Young poignantly portrayed an embittered man who face had been severely disfigured. He falls in love with a very plain-looking, intensely shy woman. But so strong was their love for one another that while the rest of the world could see them only as they were, in the enchanted cottage they saw each other through love’s eyes—the once-again handsome man and a beautiful woman transfigured by his love.

May I suggest that Mr. Young’s role there demonstrated the real meaning of love far better than the “love” he displayed playing Roswell Gilbert pumping two shells into Emily Gilbert’s head.

Editor’s note. Mr. Gilbert served five years in prison before being granted clemency in 1990.

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Categories: Euthanasia