Colorado State University psychologist Silvia Sara Canetto recently uncovered a curious statistic: two thirds of the people who die in so-called mercy killings are women. Moreover, most of these women are killed by men. "Many people may view women's high rates of death by mercy killing as an indication of men's beneficence or of women's healthy pragmatism, rational thinking and self-determination," Canetto says. "Yet one should be wary of those who present mercy killing as a gift to women. These are fatal gifts, embedded in a long tradition of legitimizing women's sacrifice."

To study trends in euthanasia, Canetto and graduate student Janet Hollenshead examined more than three decades worth of records kept by the Hemlock Society, an organization that advocates mercy killing and assisted suicide. Because the Hemlock Society defines mercy killing as "the killing of a terminally or incurably ill person to put him or her out of perceived misery" without needing to know "the intent of the suffering person," some 85 percent of the records contained no information on whether the victim had in fact requested to die. Among cases in which the victim's age was given, more than 70 percent were 60 or older. Only about a third of the victims described as sick had terminal illnesses.

"Men take lives, their own and others, more often than women," Canetto comments. "Still, it is not clear at present why men are more likely to mercy kill women rather than other men." She does, however, offer some theories on why women are more likely to die. They may internalize social patterns that devalue women's lives and therefore ask to die instead of asking for support. And requests to die may hide underlying depression.

"If older women are uniquely affected by the legalization of hastened death, then policies presented as 'neutral,' enhancing self-determination, dignity and choice in death may actually be dangerous to older women," Canetto says. "Many women do not have the resources, the sense of entitlement or the power and freedom to make the choice they desire, especially when they are sick and disabled, and the freedom to be dead is a very peculiar freedom.