Death of Famous Conductor & His Wife Reignites Assisted-Suicide Debate

By Allison Bond | July 15, 2009 4:33 pm

sunsetOne of Britain’s best-known orchestra conductors and his wife have ended their lives at an assisted suicide facility, reigniting the debate over assisted suicide. Helping someone die is a criminal offense in Britain, so Sir Edward Downes, 85, traveled to a “right-to-die” facility near Zurich with his 74-year-old wife, Joan, who had terminal cancer.

Under Britain’s Assisted Suicide Act, helping someone kill him- or herself can bring a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. In Switzerland, however, assisted suicide is legal; the Downeses were not the first Britons who traveled there to legally commit assisted suicide. Since the Zurich clinic run by [the non-profit group] Dignitas was established in 1998 under Swiss laws that allow clinics to provide lethal drugs, British authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to Britons who go there to die…. None of the family members and friends who have accompanied the 117 people living in Britain who have traveled to the Zurich clinic for help in ending their lives have been charged with an offense [The New York Times]. Experts say it’s unlikely that this will change in the case of the Downses’ children, who potentially assisted in their parents’ suicide by traveling with them to the Zurich facility. Still, the fact remains that the couple’s children could potentially be charged with a crime for their involvement in the suicide.

The couple’s family says they died peacefully and in the way they desired–drinking a mixture of barbiturates and dying side-by-side, holding hands. Still, opponents of assisted suicide say that the current safeguards against the practice are important for protecting people from being coerced into suicide. “With imminent health cuts, growing numbers of elderly people and increasing levels of elder abuse the very last thing we need is to put vulnerable people, many of whom already think they are a financial or emotional burden to relatives, carers and the state, under pressure to end their lives through a change in the law” [BBC News], said anti-assisted suicide activist Peter Saunders.

Dignitas has faced criticism over the years for assisting the suicides of people who were not terminally ill, such as a 23-year-old who was paralyzed playing rugby. None of those cases involved criminal charges, but many were investigated by police [BBC News]. In this case, Edward Downes was not known to be terminally ill, although his sister reported that he was mostly blind and increasingly deaf. Friends said that he wanted to die with his ailing wife, who had been his partner for more than half a century [The New York Times].

Related Content:
80beats: Assisted Suicide Becomes Legal in Washington, While Georgia Makes Arrests
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Death

Image: flickr / Axel-D

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Romeo Vitelli

    This has come up before in other cases. Charges are almost never laid since prosecution would be a nighmare for everyone involved.

  • JohnJohn

    The pharmaceutical companies will NEVER make any money with this as a legal (and humane) option. The only real question surrounding this issues (in my mind) is who is funding the “opposition” in this issue.

    It’s time we all dropped the ridiculous banter and allowed people of sound mind to make responsible decisions regarding their lives and the ends thereof. You want to save lives worth fighting for… take up the fight to save whales, while there are still some to save.

    My hat is off to Dignitas for their courage to provide such a reasonable and intelligent option to one of the most important decisions a human being could ever make.

  • Jeff

    It’s not as if they were spring chickens. I’m glad their family supported their decisions instead of being selfish. If someone doesn’t want to live with a terminal illness and watch themselves slowly wither, they should be allowed to auto-terminate.
    Paralysis would also be considered a terminal illness if we still had to hunt and forage.

  • Rho

    You want to stop assisted suicides? Fund more cybernetics. If my shoddy meat-husk becomes incapable of the things I want and need to do, well, either my body goes or I go. We might never be able to cure the hundreds of various causes of cancer or other terminal illnesses (though gods know we need to keep trying.) But if I mentally start feeling trapped, and I’ve got no way to fix my body, get a better body or — to be even more futurist — to “download my consciousness” in a way that makes bodies irrelevant, then yeah, I’d just prefer to be dead.

  • wjv

    I’d second Rho’s thoughts here. I also think this debate will involve the plea for better prostheses for limbs and minds until we’re a cyborg race. Nothing inherently wrong with that I suppose, but we’re extinct as soon as we lose the capacity for manufacturing (i.e. to little energy, skilled labor, raw material etc.). Also I laughed at your use of the term “meat-husk.” Clever and self deprecating, I like it.

    I also would venture to guess that when this debate is settled (I suspect ultimately the right-to-die will be granted) those future people will look back on us and discuss how brutal and inhumane we were to deny an exit strategy from suffering.

  • Ravan Asteris

    Quite frankly, the anti-assisted suicide people are just control freaks, wanting to exercise the ultimate control over other people’s bodies and lives.

    There are situations under which I will not wish to live. Assisted or not, I will find a way to make and enforce my choice for my life. Anyone interfering is just a controlling busybody.

    My hats off to the couple who chose their peaceful end in the way that they wished.

  • NicoleW

    The most fundamental of human rights is the right to decide the time and place of one’s own death. Any discussion to the contrary is tyrrany.

  • 15yrold.

    i beleive assisted suicide should be ones own decison, they have the right to live their life how they want and shouldnt be told otherwise.on the contrary the religous groups have no need to interfere seeing as how the law or anything else rarely interfere with thier practices and beleifs.if anyone would like to disscuss this more here is my e-mail please if you feel the need although i am young i can be very mature especielly with situations like these


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