A few days before July 10, 2009, Sir Edward Downes, Conductor Emeritus of the BBC Philharmonic, and his wife, Lady Joan, travelled to Switzerland. Lady Joan was in the final stages of cancer and Sir Edward was completely blind and severely deaf, although not terminally ill. She was 74 and he was 85 and they had been married 54 years.
On that Friday, after having settled in at a Dignitas clinic, they both drank a cocktail of barbiturates, with their children, Caractacus and Boudicca, watching close by. Edward and Joan fell asleep within minutes, lying on a bed, holding hands. Within 10 minutes, they peacefully passed away.
In a statement chronicling the event, the children stated :
“They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally.”
A couple still very much in love: one terminally ill and the other unable to conceive a life without his mate, his health increasingly frail. They chose how and when to die, with dignity. It could even be viewed as a happy ending to a lifelong love story.
In countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, assisted suicide (or euthanasia) is perfectly legal, under strict laws and regulations. In the United States, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont allow it. But in most parts of the world the subject is still taboo and, when discussed, fraught with ethical and moral questions. Most of us end up having little control on how we die.
Increasingly, stories surface of family members, husbands and wives, life partners who have helped their significant others or a parent reach the netherworld, whether it’s legal or not where they live. I have asked myself “Would you do it? Would you help your husband die if he was reaching the end of his life and asked you to?” and I have come to the conclusion it’s one of those hypothetical questions it’s impossible to answer, unless faced with the reality of it.
In a moving interview in The Daily Telegraph, Judith Kerr ( an English picture book author) revealed that her own father, a famous German theatre critic and poet who fled to Britain with his family in 1936, committed suicide in 1948 with the help of his young wife, who had secretly obtained the pills. “I never had a moment’s doubt that it was right”, she says. “He had had a major stroke and knew he would not recover. He couldn’t think as clearly as he had done, he was paralysed on one side and didn’t want to go on”.
In principle, I agree. From the perch of my youth, when death was still something that happened to other people, I vehemently argued for it. Whenever the subject came up in late night conversations, I wholeheartedly supported the right to die if terminally ill or incapacitated, and for a family member to aid a patient who couldn’t perform the act himself. Killing what I loved most, under such terminal circumstances, seemed the ultimate act of love.
Then, on October 31 2012, Ben Mattlin entered my life, unannounced and unwelcomed. Weighing on the debate of whether Massachusetts should vote euthanasia into law in the upcoming election, Mr. Mattlin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, detailing his struggle with a lifelong illness that should have killed him long ago. Defying science and doctors, he is still alive, living what is, for him, a full and rewarding life even if most healthy people would disagree. There were times when he came close to death, when the pain was so unbearable or his capacities so diminished, that ending it all seemed the kinder alternative. But he didn’t and he is happy he didn’t. His arguments against assisted suicide include the pressure, even involuntary, that sick people can be subjected to by doctors or family members who care for them – the feeling of being a burden that might sway them towards choosing death sooner than nature had intended.
The article gave me pause. I still believe in the right to die, under certain circumstances, but I am not quite sure how it can be successfully regulated even if, in the words of Rosie Harper, a vicar in the Church of England who supports euthanasia “The Swiss experience shows that [the fears of abuse] are unfounded. Since the 1940s it has been legal, within very tightly controlled rules, to help someone who wishes to die. It has not become normalised, far less expected. The numbers are low, and many more people explore the possibility and use it as an emotional safeguard, than choose to end their lives in that way.” (the Guardian).
The only thing I believe now is that only those confronted with the very real and wrenching decision of ending their lives, or helping a loved one do so, can express a cogent opinion on the matter. The rest of us can only decide whether, and how, we should give them a lawful frame in which to choose.
For an honest and illuminating take on life with disabilities and other things, check out Ben Mattlin’s blog Adventures in Modern Life
All images C&S