Friday, July 17, 2009


Devoted: Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan (Daily Mail)

At what age does one begin to think of one’s mortality? 50? 70? 90? As we celebrate each birthday, we pray for many more to come. But what if old age brings with it a slew of illnesses and pain? Would we still want to cling on to life?

These questions came up after I read about Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes’ assisted joint suicide on 14 July 2009. He was 85 and she was 74. The names are unfamiliar to me but what they did was heroic.
Sir Edward Downes, 84, was a celebrated conductor with the BBC Philharmonic. When his wife of 54 years was diagnosed with terminal cancer with only a few weeks to live, he decided that he didn’t want to live a solitary existence without her.

Although not terminally ill, Sir Edward was almost blind and nearly deaf. Not being able to read music scores or hear music was devastating to him. It was a joint decision to end their lives together. As assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal in Britain, the couple sought the help of Dignitas, a centre for assisted dying in Zurich, Switzerland.

A flat in Zurich, belonging to Dignitas where assisted suicides take place. (Photo:TimesOnline)

Son Caractacus, 41, and daughter Boudicca, 39, were with their parents during their final moments. “They drank a small quantity of clear liquid, and then lay down on the beds next to each other. They wanted to be next to each other when they died. They held hands across the beds. Within a couple of minutes, they were asleep and they died within 10 minutes."

Suicide is often viewed as copping out when the going gets tough. But in the Downes’ case, not only is it a beautiful love story (together in life and death) it is also a story of courage and dignity. That’s my view anyway.

When one's body is racked with terminal disease and unbearable pain, with virtually no quality of life left, one should be allowed the option to terminate one’s life. Family members and doctors should respect the decision.

We want to be optimistic (what if the doctors were wrong? what if there's a cure? what if prayers can work miracles?) But we also have to be pragmatic (why prolong the agony? how much longer can we keep up with the medical expenses?)

It is a tough decision for the family, but a relatively easy one for the terminally ill. Ultimately, who has the right to make that final decision between life and death?

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