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.