Assisted suicide: Opting out, together

Last week Joan and Edward Downes took lethal doses of sodium pentobarbital and died peacefully together. She had terminal cancer. He had no life-threatening health problems.

’Til death us do part, go the words of the vow. But for famed British choreographer Joan Downes, 74, and her husband, the conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, the prospect of parting at death was just too painful, said Anna Blundy in the London Times. When the couple recently learned that Joan had terminal cancer, Edward decided he couldn’t live without her. So they traveled to a clinic in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and last week the Downeses said goodbye to their children and took lethal doses of sodium pentobarbital. Holding hands, they quickly fell unconscious and died peacefully. It was a romantic, “very Romeo and Juliet–ish” end to a 54-year marriage, said Matt Schofield in The Kansas City Star, but an ethically troubling one, as well. Edward may have been increasingly frail and losing his sight and hearing, but he had no life-threatening health problems of his own. It’s one thing for the terminally ill to be able to choose assisted suicide, but should it be legal for a person to kill himself as an alternative to suffering a broken heart?

How dare anyone question this “brave decision,” said Melanie Reid in the London Times. When two people have been happily married for as long as the Downeses, they effectively “become like two halves of one person.” Edward did not want to live without his beloved Joan—especially since his encroaching deafness had already robbed the famed conductor of music, his other great love. As for Edward’s lack of “major health problems,” said Kerry Howley in, the prognosis for an 85-year-old man in obvious decline is not appreciably brighter than that of a terminal cancer patient. “Is there really an ethical difference between his choice and that of his cancer-stricken wife?”

Yes, actually, there is, said The Economist in an editorial. If we allow assisted suicide for people whose only affliction is being old, we run a huge risk that “greedy relations will put pressure on the elderly to choose to die” for the convenience and enrichment of their heirs. And this isn’t just about the elderly, said Roger Boyes, in the London Times. Once we declare assisted suicide a universal right, available on demand, a line will form of people struggling with depression, spinal cord injuries, debilitating handicaps, and existential despair. To tell these people, Fine, kill yourselves if you like, would be to “cheapen life”—and to diminish our own humanity.

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