Karen Shoffstall is dead. She was young, she was pretty, she had so much to live for. But she is dead. At the age of 30 the New York resident and Guelph, Ontario native was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis. The illness is a terrible one, but there are numerous people who live with it for many years, enjoying a fine quality of life.

Such seemed to be the case with Karen Shoffstall. She took vacations, had fun, relished the opportunities that life offered. Yet she had been for some years what her mother describes as “not mentally ill but mentally unstable.” She would sometimes fantasize, perhaps tells lies, concoct stories that were not true. When MS smashed its ugly way into her life Karen would experience bouts of terrible doubt, convinced she was about to lose her job, her friends and her quality of life.

All of this is a far from untypical experience for someone with a profoundly serious medical condition and something with which a counsellor or therapist could deal. But Karen didn’t do this. Instead of lifting her head up to the light, she lowered it to the darkness. She made the terrible mistake of writing to Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

The man who has transformed the horror of suicide into a grotesque cult quickly responded. On August 13, 1997, he met the confused Karen in a suburban Detroit hotel room with one of his aides. Shortly afterward the 34-year-old woman was dead, knocked unconscious by an enormous dose of barbiturates, and then killed by potassium chloride.

Kevorkian claims he has a long and extensive list of requirements before he will engage in his grisly trade and that assisted suicide can only occur when the person requesting such a thing is truly in agony and genuinely understands what she wants.

Karen was not, did not. She seldom used a wheelchair. She did not even use a cane very often, and as a trained nurse knew that while MS is chronic, it needn’t be disabling. But she was so scared.

Confused and broken

“Oh yes, oh yes, so very, very scared,” explained her sister, Tina, who lives in Guelph. “She was terrified of what might happen and this was taken as a sign that she didn’t want to live any more.” A pause for anger as well as grief. “Maybe she did claim that she wanted to die, but was this a decision made sanely and with thought? Not at all. And as for it being her decision and affecting only herself, I wish you could have some idea of what this has done to her family, to her mother.” And she points to a quiet, obviously still shaken woman sitting in the corner of the room. A woman who is confused and utterly broken.

“I just know she did not realize what she was getting into, did not understand she was creating horrors in her mind that were not really there,” says Karen’s mum, a brave and extraordinary person whose wounds are so deep as to be almost visible. “We would always have been there for her.”

Which poses the question of what the thing we now sometimes refer to as “compassionate homicide” is all about. The last person who can make a clear, cogent decision about the future, about his or her very life, is a person in profound fear. Pain and the anticipation of pain produce such a fear.

Then there are the social pressures. Karen was afraid of losing her lifestyle, an attractive New York lifestyle that we see lionized on television and in the movies. She believed that anything else was simply not worth having. How terribly and, as it turned out, fatally wrong.

Death provoked by a lowering of social expectations is almost too repugnant to contemplate. We also have to consider the implicit beliefs of the old or sick. “I know it would be easier financially for the family if I wasn’t here … It’s such a long way for them to come every week and the grandchildren don’t like it … I’ve had a good life and the insurance will be so helpful for them … I just don’t fit in.”

I just don’t fit in. The chilling death-rattle exploited by the social engineers. The plea of despair screamed by Karen Shoffstall that fell on the deaf ears of a so-called doctor and his cadaverous sidekick in Detroit.

Karen’s case is not unique. But Karen was. And for her mother and sister there will never be another. God have mercy on her. And God have mercy, and righteous judgement, on Jack Kevorkian.