Five or six times I must have read the story about the relatively healthy little old English lady who killed herself rather than struggle on through the “digital age,” and I still cannot quite think what to make of it. Surely there is something noble about leaving life on what are as nearly as possible one’s own terms, with some strength left, after a full, long, largely happy existence.
On the other hand, her explanation of why she was ready to die features “supermarket shelves stacked with ready meals” pretty prominently. So it seems remotely possible she was just a fragile, nervous nincompoop. A younger relative went with her to the famous Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and held her hand as she took an overdose of barbiturates, eventually telling a reporter “I cannot think of a better death,” though not before offering a hypothetical example of one.
As a reader, I take it that the niece, who somehow failed to persuade her auntie that Tesco sausages and YouTube cat videos aren’t really a proper occasion for a felo de se, did not actually zoom straight from the interview to the reading of the will. I suppose Dignitas does its best to make sure oldies aren’t being urged to suicide by impatient heirs, but surely there is only so much the staff can do, and it is in their interest to do as little as possible. It is certainly easy to imagine ethically dubious ways of encouraging the irritability of a cranky, inconvenient old person. Oo, hardly worth the trouble of gettin’ out of bed in the morning, is it, gran? Oh, dear, are your lungs givin’ you a hard time again? Tsk, must make you want to chuck it all in sometimes. If you are a person of British descent, you take in a certain amount of this glum, boggy attitude with every meal anyway. It comes naturally.
Advocates of assisted suicide consider it outrageous that people who wish to off themselves sometimes have to go the trouble of travelling to another state—in the case of Switzerland, one so bucolic and pretty that the self-doomed sometimes spend a few final days taking in the sights. Fast-forward 50 years: will we hear complaints that there is no E-Z-Death clinic in Toronto on Danforth Avenue between Pape and the DVP? There are obvious merits in having suicide be somewhat difficult. The contrary is always argued by means of the most disabled, miserable poster children imaginable, but inevitably we find, as the pro-lifers point out, that the slope is slippery and offers no purchase. In a few years we go from Sue Rodriguez to the grouchy octogenarian who doesn’t like iPhones and whose wind isn’t quite as good as it was when she was 70.
Dignitas stands on the principle of personal autonomy, to the point of upholding the despairing oldster as a hero. There is an endless supply of such heroes; the relative absurdity of this one, who suddenly found television to be an intolerable novelty in the year 2014, can be surpassed ad infinitum. The means of suicide probably should be readily available to the elderly, for after all, the principle of personal autonomy really is paramount. All of bioethics flows from it, or ought to. Our ownership of our lives and our bodies is even more important than the social principle that suicide is to be discouraged.
But who is ready to have the government issue packets of Nembutal every five years with Canada Pension Plan cheques? Whatever solution we decide on for the convenience of the legitimately ailing or hopeless, I want the doctors—who, after all, belong to a profession that cannot seem to stop prescribing useless antibiotics for upper respiratory infections—to have as little to do with it as possible. Physicians are not saints, and they will follow the “easier for me” heuristic, like other primates, if non-negotiable aspects of their duty are thrown open to fiddling. “Do no harm” has been at the top of the list for 2,400 years, and, please, keep in mind, it took them 2,200 of those to give up therapeutic bloodletting.