A dubious example of assisted suicide

A high-profile suicide creates dramatic headlines—and impossible questions


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.


A dubious example of assisted suicide

  1. I think we would be hard pressed to find many people in their 80’s who do not complain about technology, computers, gadgets and so on. I hardly think Anne’s decision to leave this world had anything to do with technology, computers, and gadgets.

    She was 89 years old. That’s pretty old in anyone’s book these days. While not terminally ill, she did suffer from heart and lung disease, and did not want to end up in a nursing home.

    She said, “my lack of strength and energy and declining health is a life with no enviable future. My life has been full, with so many adventures and tremendous independence”. She made the decision to end her life with dignity. I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

    I watched my mother whither away from cancer. I sat with her as she choked and gasped for her last breath. It was not, to put it mildly, a very dignified way to go. How I wish I could turn back time and give my mother the same option as Anne. I can tell you right now she would gladly have taken it.

    I can only hope the option will be available to me one day, should I end up in a similar situation.

  2. We happily and calmly go to war knowing full well that hundreds, or thousands, or even millions will die at all ages and without being given any choice.

    And yet one 89 year old woman freely chooses suicide and people get upset.

    I don’t understand the constant curiosity about motives.

    It doesn’t matter ‘why’ the person wants to die. It’s enough that they do. They make the choice.

  3. During my 16 years in England, I spent three years (1995-98) working as a caregiver – living with and caring for several elderly people suffering from advanced dementia. I saw first-hand how this disease leaves its victims trapped in a truly terrifying, living hell – with no way out except fading slowly and somewhat agonizingly into a merciful death. I often felt my charges were closer to anxious zombies than human beings – and did often wonder about the ethics of prolonging life as long as possible under those circumstances.

    My time as a carer left me decidedly unwilling to experience that kind of ‘life’ myself. As such, I can say hand on heart that the day I’m diagnosed with dementia is the day I start making moves to check out. When it comes that kind of illness, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.

    In fact, maybe we should be a little more like Latin America – where people appear to embrace and celebrate death rather than attempting to ignore it and lock it away behind closed doors, as westerners seem inclined to do?

    Raising awareness
    This year, I self-published The Carer, a short e-novel based on my time as a live-in geriatric nurse. Described as a “gritty urban thriller with a social conscience”, The Carer offers a “Faustian tale of elder abuse, patricide by proxy and the corrosive effects of power.” You can buy The Carer for USD0.99 from Amazon and all other major ebook retailers.

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