by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 17, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Here's a riddle for you: What may be the most worthless thing on the planet? The answer: An old woman -- unless it's a young girl. And I'm sorry if you're been offended, but that's the unhappy conclusion I've drawn from a number of recent news stories.
The first was about Dr. Harold F. Shipman, 55, a trusted British doctor who had a sideline in serial murder. A recap of his story appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times on May 13, 2001.
As murder mysteries go, it's a great one. The dedicated doctor was so respected in the town of Hyde that no one noticed when over 300 of his patients -- yes, 300 and counting -- died unexpectedly.
"He arrived often without warning in the afternoons at the home of a fairly healthy patient," writes reporter Kurt Eichenwald. "Soon, she would be dead, killed by an injection of morphine."
Shipman was arrested in 1998, and was convicted last year of the murder of 15 patients. That's only a small number, but trying him for all the crimes would clog up the courts forever.
Now serving a life sentence, he still won't divulge his motive.
Hyde has a population of about 37,000 -- it's neither small nor large. But even so, 300-plus murders is a bit excessive. And a public inquiry, beginning on June 20, is planning to examine the deaths of 466 of Shipman's patients.
According to Eichenwald, the question on everyone's lips is: "How could so prolific a killer live among them for so long, in plain sight, and go undetected?"
Eichenwald's answer: "The answer lies partly with the confidentiality allowed by British law and tradition. Professionals -- in government, law and medicine -- are granted a degree of trust that often keeps their work beyond rigorous public review."
That may be part of it, but there's another part that becomes transparently clear when you add one extra little detail: almost all his victims were older women.
Shipman fabricated their medical records and death reports and got away with murder for 23 years -- from 1976 to 1999.
In 1976, for example, addicted to drugs, Shipman lost his practice in a town just north of Manchester. He was fined, but he kept his license and set up shop in Hyde.
"A review of death certificates conducted for the government points to higher numbers of deaths among Dr. Shipman's elderly female patients starting that year," Eichenwald wrote. "The review found that, for every thousand women among his patients ages 65 to 74, Dr. Shipman had 47.2 deaths, while comparable practices experienced only 4.5."
And no one noticed.
Well, old women are supposed to die, aren't they? What good do they do? After the children leave home, aren't they just taking up space? Who pays them any mind? In the old days, when they were called witches, society knew exactly what to do with them -- actually, something in line with Shipman's final solution.
I kept waiting for Eichenwald to state the obvious, which is that if Shipman had been killing men, he would never would have gotten to 10, much less 300. Kristen Gilbert, the nurse at the VA hospital in Northampton, Mass., for example, was recently sentenced to life in prison for killing only four men before she was stopped.
If I had been the reporter on the Shipman story, I would have devoted several paragraphs to the gender factor. And I would have found experts to comment on the respect and value (or lack of the same) for older women in British culture. But the obvious escaped Eichenwald and his editors at The New York Times, just as it escaped the good people of Hyde. Not even the women's families, sad to say, stopped to wonder. Three hundred disposable women!
Not only was I deeply saddened and speechless with anger when I read the story, but I was also reminded of another Times story the Sunday before. In it, Celia W. Dugger wrote about the aborting of female fetuses in China and India.
A while back, many feature stories were written about the burgeoning popularity of ultrasound clinics in rural India and China. You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why. Pregnant women would use them to learn the sex of their unborn children, and abort the ones which weren't males.
The government of India passed laws against this usage, but couldn't enforce them. Now the census statistics are in, and the results are horrifying.=
"Normally, women around the world give birth to 105 or 106 boys for every 100 girls," Dugger wrote. "But according to China's latest census, there were 117 boys born for every 100 girls in 2000, up from 114 in 1990... In Punjab, the rate has fallen to 793 girls per 1,000 boys from 875; in Rajasthan from 915 to 865; in Gujarat from 928 to 878."
These statistics tie in with the fact that a vast majority of babies adopted out of China are females who were abandoned at birth.
The reason, economists and demographers speculate, is that "in a particular form of patriarchal family, common in most parts of both regions... the daughter's responsibility to care for her parents largely ends at marriage, while the son's lasts for life," Dugger writes. "And in India and China, where there is still no universal, government-sponsored social security system, the question of who supports aging parents is very important."
According to Darwinian theories of survival of the fittest and competition to reproduce and project the family genes into ensuing generations, these patriarchs of rural China and India are pretty close to the weakest links as well as being the dimmest bulbs.
Who do they think all these boys are going to marry? How are they going to reproduce? Are we going back to cavemen times, when bands of unattached men waged war on neighboring tribes to bring women home for mates?
Add female infanticide, bride burnings, dowries, clitorectomies and a bunch of other nasty stuff to the gender mix, and our culture, where feminists rage about eating disorders, body images, the glass ceiling, "Jones' Diary" and "The Rules" -- looks like a female walk in the park. Here, at least, they let us live.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.