Death of British Conductor Raises Further Questions About Assisted Suicide

Jul 15, 2009 at 4:45 pm
Death of British Conductor Raises Further Questions About Assisted Suicide
The news came from England yesterday that orchestra conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, and his wife Joan, 74, committed suicide together last week in Switzerland with the aid of a right-to-die organization called Dignitas.

Lady Downes was terminally ill and in the last stages of cancer. Sir Edward, who had been the principal conductor for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, was, according to a statement issued by his son Caractacus and daughter Boudicca, "almost blind and increasingly deaf," but otherwise in good health. He did not, however, want to live without his wife of 54 years.

Unlike the American Final Exit Network, which helps its clients end their lives with helium, Dignitas prescribes lethal cocktails of barbiturates. Caractacus and Boudicca Downes, who were with their parents, said they died ten minutes after they swallowed the small, clear vial of drugs and lay down together on adjacent beds, holding hands.

As in the U.S., assisted suicide is illegal in Great Britain. Since Dignitas was founded in 1998, 117 Britons have traveled to Zurich to use the service, which charges about $6,570 per death.

Though Scotland Yard is investigating the Downes case, no one who accompanied a Dignitas client to Switzerland has ever been charged with a crime, and legal experts told The New York Times it was unlikely things would be any different for Boudicca and Caractacus Downes.

"It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don't understand why the legal position in this country doesn't allow it," Caractacus Downes told the Times. "Even if they arrest us and send us to prison, it would have made no difference because it is what our parents wanted."

Sir Edward's friends told the Times that his decision to die with his wife was characteristically "rational," in the words of Richard Wigley, general manager of the BBC Philharmonic.

On Double X, Slate's site for women, blogger Nina Shen Rostogi writes that the Downes' story reminds her the tale of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid's Metamorphoses: An impoverished elderly couple offer hospitality to a (disgused) Jupiter and Mercury and, as a reward, the gods grant them one favor. Baucis and Philemon ask to die together.

Rostogi quotes A.S. Kline's modern translation:
when they were released by old age, and by the years, as they chanced to be standing by the sacred steps, discussing the subject of their deaths, Baucis saw Philomen put out leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis put out leaves, and as the tops of the trees grew over their two faces, they exchanged words, while they still could, saying, in the same breath: "Farewell, O dear companion", as, in the same breath, the bark covered them, concealing their mouths.
Cue the debate about whether the Downes' death was romantic* or if assisted suicide should be prohited in all cases or just for the non-terminally ill.

* In very tangentially-related news, Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in England, has just released a study claiming that British men are among the world's least romantic.