Liz Van Note acquittedAmongst the exiguous collateral benefits of the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia are scripts for B-grade Hollywood films and TV dramas. On cable TV in Canada and the US “Mary Kills People” is currently being screened. This being is billed as “a provocative six-episode dark comedic drama series” about an ER doctor who illegally moonlights as an “angel of death” for the terminally ill.
But the best plots come from real life. This one from Missouri shows how family quarrels, criminal weaknesses and money intersect in advance directives.
Susan “Liz” Van Note has been found innocent of the murders of her father, William Van Note, and his partner, Sharon Dickson in 2010. They were shot and stabbed to death at their home. Ms Dickson died at the scene; Mr Van Note was unconscious and taken to hospital. Liz Van Note was described in the media as a lawyer specialising in end-of-life issues. She was also the executor of her father’s estate. At the hospital she produced a durable power of attorney which in which he had declared that life support should be turned off after four days. She insisted, the doctors complied and he died.
At the trial it emerged that Mr Van Note’s estate was worth about US$8 million and that he had left the bulk of it to Ms Dickson, to the consternation of his daughter, who was in serious financial difficulties. The defence attorney pinned the the murder on a mysterious man who was unable to repay a debt of $600,000 to Mr Van Note.
The jury found that there was not enough evidence to convict Ms Van Note. However, the jury foreman declared that “‘Not guilty’ does not mean innocent.” And Ms Van Note had done something quite irregular. She had forged her father’s signature on the document requesting termination of life support. The prosecutor told the jury, “Does it strike anybody strange that she wanted to pull the plug that quick? I would submit she didn’t want him to wake up and talk.”
“She’s a terrible killer,” the prosecutor said in his closing argument. “She couldn’t kill him with a gun or a knife. So she used her mouth to tell the hospital to kill him.”
But, as noted above, Ms Van Note was found innocent and walked free.
Winston Churchill was once voted the “greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll, edging out Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who?), Lady Diana, Shakespeare and John Lennon. Now, in addition to his gifts as a statesman and politician, orator and historian (and artist), we have been reminded that he helped to popularise science as well.
As reported in Nature, an historian has discovered an 11-page manuscript which Churchill penned in 1939 but never published, speculating about life on other planets. It turns out that the great man was deeply interested in modern science and followed developments keenly. Gazing at the gathering storm, he wrote pessimistically:
“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
But despite the reminder that Churchill was a fan of science, it’s also good to remember that he believed that there were moral limits to science. In one of his most famous speeches, he foresaw dark days for the world if Germany were to win the War:
If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world ... will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
Science, so Churchill believed, was fascinating, but not good in itself. It had to be governed by morality, lest it become “perverted”. It’s not a bad reminder for us, three generations on, as we enter an era of genetic engineering.
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BioEdge: Calling Hollywood: have we got a script for you!