The Persistence of Myth

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It is human nature to cling to ideas that are perceived as true, or likely to be true. The tenacity of that belief is not necessarily diminished by the revelation that the idea is false. For instance, now that it has been revealed that Bigfoot was a hoax perpetrated by a fellow wearing gigantic carved wooden feet attached to his shoes, will belief in that creature disappear? No, I think we can safely assume that he will continue to be sighted, and even photographed, but so what? Belief in Bigfoot is harmless.

The legal profession also clings to perceived truths, but in the case of the law, that belief may not be harmless. For example: the legal "truth" that the husband is the father of the child was acceptable in the days prior to DNA testing. Today, despite the perfectly undeniable fact, proven by DNA, that they are not the fathers, husbands around the country are coerced by the courts into paying child support for children which are not their own. No new-fangled ideas are going to sidetrack the "justice" steamroller!

This was demonstrated recently in Midwest courtrooms. A mental patient, Rodney Yoder, wants to be released from the Chester (Illinois) Mental Health Center, where he’s been held since 1991. No doubt Yoder deserved some punishment. He was convicted of beating his girlfriend in 1979, and clubbing his ex-wife with a chair leg in 1990. He bit an officer on the arm in 1997, and attacked a fellow inmate with a sock full of batteries two years ago. But he’s paid for those crimes. The prosecutor wants Yoder kept in the mental hospital indefinitely — perhaps for the rest of his life, because "Rodney is dangerous." He produced a couple of psychiatrists to testify that Yoder is mentally ill and dangerous. Of course, Yoder produced a psychiatrist who said exactly the opposite, which, in itself, tended to support his position that mental illness is bunk.

Isn’t that a contention, which ought to be given a hearing? If Yoder is "mentally ill," so what? If he deliberately injures someone, the law can deal with that, and it has. If he is "dangerous," does that justify his imprisonment, even when it is under the guise of hospitalization? Does being "dangerous" justify pre-emptive incarceration? Al Capone was dangerous; was he incarcerated for that reason? Only God knows how many people walking the streets are "dangerous." If Yoder’s indefinite confinement is justified because his danger to society stems from his "illness," then shouldn’t people with AIDS be confined? They have an illness, and pose a danger to society, in many cases, by virtue of their promiscuity. Lock them up! Do we treat other illnesses by locking up the patients? The concept of mental disease, and its relation to the law, is one that deserves investigation. That was Yoder’s argument, and the prosecutor and jurors would have none of it. They’ll stick with the idea that Bigfoot lives, and the husband is always the father. People who do or say unusual things are mentally ill, and should be confined.

On the same day that Yoder lost his case, a pharmacist in Kansas City was sentenced to thirty years in prison for diluting cancer drugs. The druggist in question, Robert Courtney, does not deserve a great deal of sympathy. He was simply a thief. He prepared doses of chemotherapy by placing the drugs in solutions to be given intravenously to cancer patients. He received the payment, but placed only a fraction of the proper dose in the solutions. He admitted at trial that he did it only for money, but it wasn’t the theft that concerned the parties to the trial. Witnesses called Courtney "a monster in a white coat," and a murderer. The Judge, described in newspaper accounts as "emotional," sentenced Courtney to the maximum sentence, saying, "Your crimes are a shock to the civilized conscience. They are beyond understanding." That’s a bit much, for a mere thief. The judge, and evidently nearly everyone in the courtroom, seemed convinced of the "truth" that denial of "adequate" doses of chemotherapy amounted to a death sentence. It was taken for granted that the patients receiving the diluted chemo were harmed thereby, although some would argue that they benefited. Certainly there were medical arguments that could have been made, and should have been considered. How much harm, in fact, was done by the diluted doses? Does chemotherapy save lives? Does it even prolong them? Apparently the defense didn’t raise the question. "Chemo saves" was the idea accepted by everyone. But does it? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to find out before imposing a sentence of thirty years, and a fine of millions of dollars? You’d think so, unless you’d rather believe that Bigfoot is lurking in your neighborhood. Some "truths" die hard, even with chemotherapy.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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