Death with dignity? Better act fast!

In a tale that could have been written by Kafka, Shirley Justins, a 60 year old Australian woman, will be going to jail because she helped her partner end his life after a two year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Graeme Wylie had repeatedly and clearly expressed his wish to die before the disease further eroded his cognition. He had made several unsuccessful suicide attempts and had applied to the Swiss euthanasia organization, Dignitas, for help in ending his life.

Shirley Justins

The court agreed that Wylie had wanted to die, but contended that this was not a case about euthanasia. Rather, the judge and jury insisted — and here is the Kafkaesque part — Wylie had wasted so much time with his failed suicide attempts and the application process for Dignitas, that is was no longer clear that he was mentally capable of making the decision to die.

This is the ultimate nightmare of the Alzheimer’s patient come true: the wish to live as long as life is meaningful and the fear that waiting until that moment will make it impossible to die with dignity. Who bears responsibility for this tragedy? Not Wylie, who wanted what most people would want. Not Justins, who knowingly risked her freedom to grant Wylie his last and greatest wish. We — the people of first world countries — bear responsibility, because it is our unwillingness to confront the reality of Alzheimer’s disease and our unwillingness to create options for dignified death, that drive people to the desperate measures that led to a jail sentence for a woman who acted out of love.

The case is replete with ironies. Wylie killed himself with a large dose of veterinary Nembutal, which is manufactured for the purpose of compassionately putting down dogs and horses in order to end their suffering. Justins was convincted for buying the Nembutal in Mexico. Her friend Caren Jenning, who had helped her purchase the medication, was tried and convicted along with her. Jenning, who was suffering from breast cancer, committed suicide by taking — you guessed it — a dose of Nembutal. Part of the impetus for the case was the anger of daughter Tania Shakespeare (that is her real name) that Justins had robbed her of the chance to say goodbye to her father, though it was not clear that Wylie wanted to say goodbye to her or wanted to tell her of his plans.

The facts of the case are not in dispute. According to the Associated Press:

Wylie, a former commercial airline pilot and the father of two daughters, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in March 2003. Over the next two years, according to the judge’s sentencing report, his mental faculties declined; he stopped reading newspapers and had difficulty making conversation.

By 2005, tests showed he had “severe cognitive impairment.” That September, he tried to cut his wrists, but survived.

That month, he told Justins he wanted to enlist the help of Dignitas, a Swiss organization that helps incurably ill people end their lives. It is legal in Switzerland for foreigners to travel to the country to commit assisted suicide, and dozens do so each year…

But Dignitas rejected Wylie’s application, saying it was unclear whether he had the cognitive ability to decide to die.

Wylie later tried to poison himself on lawnmower fumes, but again, survived. In March 2006, Justins handed him a lethal dose of a barbiturate and watched him drink it. She said he died within seconds.

And no one doubts Justins’ motive:

“I believe that generally the offender was caring and supportive of the deceased and compliant to his wishes,” Justice Howie wrote. “There is little doubt that he was genuine in seeking death through the Dignitas application.”

But, according to The Sydney Morning Herald:

[Justice Howie] expressed the need to denounce the killing which, as the “calculated and unlawful taking of human life, is an affront to … civilised society”.

The Supreme Court jury found Mr Wylie lacked the capacity at the time of his death to decide he wanted to die.

If Justins had not received any prison sentence, many in society would have seen her mere conviction “as a badge of honour”, Justice Howie said. “In this case there appears to be an attitude which found its expression in some of the media coverage … that somehow the conduct of the [women] was justified or at least of a different moral order than other criminal conduct that results in the loss of life.”

I, for one, am willing to go out on a limb and make the claim that the conduct of the women was justified, and was of a different moral order than other criminal conduct that results in the loss of life. By failing to offer Graeme Wylie any option to live as long as life was bearable and then to die in the way he wanted, society left him no other choice than to beg his partner for help.



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