Suicide: A Love Story

holding hands

There are not many heartwarming stories about death, and even fewer about suicide. That small number is destined to grow with the addition of the true story of Sir Edward and Lady Downes, and elderly couple who chose to end their lives together as she faced imminent death from terminal cancer.

From The New York Times:

…[O]ne of Britain’s most distinguished orchestra conductors, Sir Edward Downes, [flew] to Switzerland last week with his wife and joined her in drinking a lethal cocktail of barbiturates provided by an assisted-suicide clinic.

Although friends who spoke to the British news media said Sir Edward was not known to have been terminally ill, they said he wanted to die with his ailing wife, who had been his partner for more than half a century.

According to their children:

Sir Edward, who was described in a statement issued earlier on Tuesday by [their son and daughter] as “almost blind and increasingly deaf,” was principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra … [and] a conductor of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, where he led 950 performances over more than 50 years.

Lady Downes, who British newspapers said was in the final stages of terminal cancer, was a former ballet dancer, choreographer and television producer who devoted her later years to working as her husband’s assistant.

“After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems,” the Downes children said in their statement.

What could be more natural or more romantic? An elderly couple who had an unusually long and happy life together faced only debility, decline and life apart. They viewed this prospect as insupportable and chose to take control of their destiny by ending their lives now instead of suffering longer. Their deaths were quiet and peaceful, just as they had planned

…[T]he children said, they watched, weeping, as their parents drank “a small quantity of clear liquid” before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands.

“Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” … the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died…”

Of course Britain, like the United States, does not permit an elderly couple to control the timing and method of their own deaths, even when those deaths are inevitable. Sir Edward and Lady Downes were forced to leave their home and travel to Switzerland, where the organization Dignitas helped arrange the suicides.

Predictably, the news of the deaths has ignited controversy back home. The British Medical Association, in their wisdom, voted recently to deny the terminally ill the option of assisted suicide.

Not surprisingly, though, in a society that forces the terminally ill to live even if they are suffering, it is Sir Edward’s death that has sparked the most outrage. He may have been 85 years old, almost blind and losing his hearing, he was not terminally ill. He had lived a long time, longer than most men, and was satisfied with his length of life, but the British, like Americans, believe that death is far too serious a matter to be controlled by the person who is dying.

That’s the source of the outrage. It is certainly not about the deaths of this elderly couple for natural deaths at the very same moment would have provoked no concern. The outrage is directed at the temerity of Sir Edward and Lady Downes in arranging the time, place and manner of their deaths instead of taking their chances with cruel fate.

The concern is not for them, of course, but for us. As Rod Dreher writes on Beliefnet:

We shall very soon proceed from the “right” to die to the “duty” to die, when one is seen, or made to see oneself, as a burden on the living.

In other words, Sir Edward and Lady Downes’ continued suffering is a regrettable necessity to protect the rest of us. If they are allowed to die, the inevitable next step would be to force others to die. It’s the classic slippery slope argument. But as students of logic know, the slippery slope argument is an intellectual fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy because it denies the possibility that a middle ground can and does exist.

It does not follow logically that allowing people to control their own deaths will lead to forcing people to die. It is possible, but those who wield the slippery slope argument are obligated to prove a connection, and thus far, no one has done so.

Moreover, the slippery slope argument in this setting is incredibly cynical and selfish in the extreme. The underlying supposition is that any amount of suffering of any number of other people is allowed in order to prevent the chance that one of us may suffer inadvertently in the future. In other words, for Dreher, the Downes’ suffering is the price they have to pay to protect Dreher from a theoretical future where he might be forced to die.

But his fear of theoretical future suffering is not a justification for the very real and ongoing suffering of terminally ill and elderly people who are ready to die but are forced to live. I applaud Sir Edward and Lady Downes for having the strength of character and purpose to make their own most intimate decisions and carry them through. And I have deep respect and admiration for the intense love that makes surviving alone an unbearable prospect.