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In Britain, even suicide is elitist

On Friday, Britons Lady Joan and Sir Edward Downes, a prominent orchestral conductor, committed suicide with barbituates provided by the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. According to British newspapers, Joan, 74, was suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and had but weeks to live; Edward, 85, was going blind and deaf and did not want to live without her. The couple had been together for 54 years. 

The story has reignited the debate over assisted suicide in Britain -- where every family that makes that horrific trip to Zurich commits a political act.

Indeed, in a brief interview with the Evening Standard, the Downes' son said,  "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." He also mentioned that he and his sister rang the police themselves to inform them of the deaths. 

British police are questioning them, as assisting a suicide is illegal in Britain. But the justice system is unlikely to do anything. At least 117 Britons have committed suicide in Switzerland, where it has been legal to help terminally ill people end their life since 1998. No members of their families have ever been prosecuted. Britain, in essence, turns a blind eye.

I don't have much to say about the validity of assisted suicide laws. But one thing about the story struck me.

It's an expensive way to die -- it costs 4,000 Euros for Dignitas' services, plus the cost of bringing out one's family. And, because it is so expensive, only the wealthy seem to choose to do it. The titled Downeses. Businesspeople. University professors. Doctors.

One can imagine other terminally ill patients, in extraordinary pain and with no quality of life, wishing to end their life in a manner of their choosing, but being unable to do so because of the cost.

Britain's laws, de facto, make it possible for the rich to die via assisted suicide, but impossible for the poor to do so.

It reminds me of one of the common arguments over abortion laws. Women in countries like Portugal (which has restrictive abortion laws) or states like South Dakota (where virtually no clinics provide the service) often need to travel far distances to obtain the service. Which means the rich are able, and the poor aren't. 

And access to such services should be determined by law, not class. 

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British army chief has to borrow American helicopter

In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of eight British soldiers in one day's fighting in Afghanistan, attention has increasingly been focused on the shortage of helicopters for the British Army there. Now, embarassingly, the head of the British army has had to tour Afghanistan with a borrowed American helicopter.

The head of the British Army is touring Afghanistan in an American helicopter, it emerged today, as he demanded more energy behind the push to get troops better equipment.

General Sir Richard Dannatt was transported by a US Black Hawk aircraft on a visit to British troops at Sangin, in the north of Helmand province.

Troops from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, were also ferried in Black Hawk helicopters when they launched Operation Panther’s Claw against the Taleban in Helmand last month.

Last week the Ministry of Defence was accused of having to borrow American helicopters because there were not enough British ones in Afghanistan.

“Self-evidently ... if I moved in an American helicopter, it’s because I haven’t got a British helicopter,” General Dannatt said.

“It’s part of the wider issue. We’re trying to broaden and deepen our effect here, which is about people, it’s about equipment, and yes, of course, to an extent it’s about helicopters as well.”

The issue became the focus of this morning's Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron (fresh off a New York Times profile) sparred over the shortage. The good part begins three minutes into the video.

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images