A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.
When the Jig is Up
November 1, 2009
The British newspaper The Telegraph reported on July 14, 2009 the deaths of Sir Edward Downes and his wife Lady Joan Downes. Sir Edward from Birmingham, was conductor emeritus of the BBC Philharmonic orchestra. He was also associate Music Director of the Royal Opera House and had conducted 950 performances of 49 operas in Covent Garden. In 1970 he became the Music Director of the Australian Opera where he conducted the first performance in the Sydney Opera house.
Lady Downes had a career as a ballet dancer and choreographer and later worked as a television producer. At the end of her life she gave up her professions to become the personal assistant to her husband. Edward long championed British music and was chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Later he was named principle conductor, and finally conductor emeritus. They both considered themselves extremely lucky to have lived long, productive lives engaged in the arts they so loved. At the end of his life, Sir Edward 85, had gone blind and was increasingly deaf. Lady Downes, 74 was struggling with cancer. According to their children they lived together fifty four happy years.
The unusual element in the story is how the couple died. They traveled to the Swiss organization Dignitas in Zurich and there were assisted in ending their lives, according to their wishes, with dignity. It is not as unusual as it may seem. Two British subjects travel each month to clinics and organizations abroad for the express purpose of ending their lives. The practice is not without controversy. In July multiple sclerosis victim Debbie Purdy won a significant legal victory in the House of Lords when she argued that she had a human right to know if her husband would be prosecuted for traveling with her to Dignitas. The reason for her concern was the 1961 Suicide Act that rules it unlawful for any British subject to assist in another’s suicide.
But there is a growing movement to establish the idea of death with dignity as a basic human right. "Parliament urgently needs to acknowledge the fact that people are traveling overseas to die – and this trend shows no sign of stopping", says Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying. "It's time the 1961 Suicide Act was brought up to date to reflect what's really going on in UK courts." There is now a groundswell toward compassionate assistance in dying. Though not often spoken of publicly, high profile cases are coming to light opening up discussions that have been taboo until now.
In late 2008 Daniel James, victim of total paralysis from a rugby accident also ended his life with assistance from Dignitas. He was 23 years old. It was Daniel’s fervent wish not to live under the harsh conditions the paralysis relegated him to. He had tried to end his life on three prior occasions but was unsuccessful due to his disability. When he heard of the Swiss organization and its compassionate assistance to sufferers - he determined to make a dignified death his final goal.
In the United States there are now two States where assisted death is legal. Oregon has allowed the practice for the past eleven years. Just last year Washington became the second American State to allow assisted suicide. To date eleven people have legally elected to use prescribed drugs to end their lives. The numbers are tiny, representing less than a tenth of one percent of all deaths statewide. But it is clear that what a person chooses to do at the end of their life is and should be their choice - and not that of the State. To a degree this is the crux of the issue. Aside from the general perception that death is taboo, much of the discussion centers around the role of State in the private lives of people. We have lived for nearly forty years with the lawful right of a woman to choose to terminate pregnancy. Given this recognition of the right to choose, and the potential termination of life by abortion - it is not a far distance to discuss death with dignity.
Two sides of the debate will declare the State to be the villain. Those who argue in favor of assisted suicide claim the State should have no say in how an individual chooses to end their life. With the Obama healthcare bill, suggestion of end-of-life-care mitigation has been branded State mandated “death panels.” Ironically when it comes to government administered health care the State assumes the role of both prosecutor and defendant. With national medicine it is the State that wants to compassionately end your life (the economic effect of care mitigation.) But should you, as an individual elect to end your life or assist that of another compassionately, the State will likely refuse.
There is a deeper, more far-reaching implication to this discussion. It is a part of the new order pervading every aspect of life these days. The first implication is that physical death is not the end of all aspects of life. There is a growing perception that spiritual life is unharmed by the physical limitations of human beings. And with this perception is the growing conviction that choosing to live under the onerous circumstances of severe illness and disability - or not, is a basic human right. Sir Edward and Lady Downes chose, as men and women have through time, to move together to the next plane on their own terms, at their own election, without asking permission. Totalitarians and fascists are threatened by such an act. It skirts their addiction to control. And that is a measure of the times and order we live in. Resistance to death with dignity will come first from a State that wants to reserve euthanasia for itself. And then from individuals who want the State to butt out of personal affairs. We can expect the more onerous and totalitarian the State - the more individuals will elect to die on their own terms.
And that gives rise to the venerable slogan of independent people who struggle against authoritarians everywhere:
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
In our opinion to that end, Lady and Sir Edward chose well.
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