Assisted suicide – Going gently

The terminally ill should be helped to an easeful death, if they ask for it

Published on The Economist.com, by , July 16, 2009.

ON JULY 10th two people died whose lives, though long, were shortened by design and with others’ help. Sir Edward Downes, a British conductor, and his wife Joan had travelled to Switzerland, where the law on assisted suicide is the world’s most liberal. He was 85, partly deaf and almost completely blind; she was 74 and had terminal cancer. Holding hands and watched by their son and daughter, they drank a lethal dose of barbiturates and died.

In most of the Western world, suicide is not a crime, but helping another to commit it is. But not all the incapacitated, or terminally ill, or permanently despairing are willing to wait for a natural death, or to take messy and uncertain measures to kill themselves without medical help. Increasingly, they travel to Switzerland, where assisting suicide is a crime only if it is done for gain (around 100 foreigners each year die at Dignitas, a suicide clinic in Zurich) and lobby their governments to change the law at home.

In only a few places – Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the American states of Oregon and Washington – have such efforts succeeded. Most countries muddle along, turning a blind eye to those determined and rich enough to travel to Switzerland. Dignitas – which gives its proceeds to charity – charges SFr10,000 ($9,300).

Kindness and cruelty: …

… A law of this sort would have allowed Lady Downes to die as she wished in her own country. But it would not have covered Sir Edward, old, frail and soon to be bereaved one way or another – but not terminally ill. Nor would Daniel James, a 23-year-old Briton whose parents accompanied him to Dignitas last year, have come within its remit. He had been paralysed in a rugby accident, and wanted to die, but could not kill himself without help. Though severely disabled, he was not terminally ill and could have expected to live for many years.

There is a strong case for allowing people like Sir Edward and Mr James to be helped to die. Their lives were their own, and they wanted to end them. But there is too great a danger that if those who are not terminally ill are allowed an easy way out, greedy relations will put pressure on the elderly to choose to die. Such people should, therefore, be denied that right – however unkind that may seem. The terminally ill, however, should be offered the help they seek. To deny it to them is to add cruelty to misfortune. (full text).

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