Kunin: Death With Dignity

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(HOST) Recent headlines have reminded commentator Madeleine Kunin that many end-of-life issues remain unresolved – and problematic.

(KUNIN) The double suicide of the renowned British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland raises some troubling questions.

I have long been a supporter of giving terminally ill patients the choice of whether or not to end their lives in order to alleviate hopeless suffering. A bill to such an effect, called patient choice, is pending in the Vermont legislature.

 The laws enacted by referendum in the states of Washington and Oregon and the Vermont bill are different from the actions taken by Downes and his wife.

The Vermont bill provides many safeguards – including that two physicians have to confirm that death is imminent.  There has to be a clear conclusion that the person is not depressed when he or she is making the choice to speed up the dying process.

In contrast, Sir Edward Downes did not have a terminal disease; only his wife did.  He was becoming blind and deaf, no doubt a terrible loss for a man whose life has revolved around creating music. But it is debatable whether that condition justifies taking one’s life.

A further reason for this unusual decision, according to the couple’s children, is that he believed he could not live without her. They were married for more than fifty years, and their lives were very much intertwined.

Again, that may not be a cause for suicide. There are many people who feel that they do not wish to continue to live when they lose a spouse, but most survive, and some go on to find new happiness.

This double suicide is haunting, because on one level it sounds romantic, even courageous. It was their decision, and who are we to question it? Most of us would like to have the option to decide when and how we die. We would like to be spared prolonged suffering brought on by extraordinary medical interventions.  Everyone would like those final days or hours to be short and painless – conscious enough to say goodbye – in other words, a good death.
Giving terminally ill patients the choice over how they will end their lives – with strict guidelines to avoid the double suicide situation of Sir Edward Downes and his wife – seems like the best approach.  Longevity and modern medicine have made this question – whether to prolong or end life – a difficult one, which most of us will have to face.

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