The chilly emptiness of a reasonable death

Assisted suicide is back in the news in Britain, because of two poignant stories with a lethal cocktail of accompanying dilemmas: is it right to take your own life to end great suffering? Should it be illegal for people to help you do so? And is it right to show an assisted suicide on television?

The popular answer to those questions, worryingly, has NOT been "no".


Story one: a judge has decided not to prosecute the parents of a 23-year-old, Daniel James, who helped their son travel to a Zurich euthanasia clinic to end his life.

Story two: a leading British broadcaster screened a documentary Wednesday night which showed the moment of 59-year-old Craig Ewert’s suicide at the same Swiss clinic, Dignitas.

Dignitas has helped more than 700 people from 25 countries to take their own lives (legally) since 1999. Switzerland allows assisted suicide -- as opposed to euthanasia, where the doctor administers the fatal dose. (Parenthetically,  euthanasia is illegal in Switzerland, but not in Holland and Belgium. In the UK, both euthanasia and assisted dying are illegal.)  

James died at one of Dignitas’s sad little apartments on September 12. He was paralysed from the chest down in a sports accident. He had repeatedly said that he wanted to die rather than live a “second-class existence” and had tried to commit suicide several times. The judge decided not to prosecute his parents who took him to Zurich because they had tried endlessly to talk their son out of it.

The law has not changed: family and friends who travel with someone to the Dignitas clinic sill technically face prosecution when they return to the UK. But the judgement in the James case shows that  the law is unlikely to be enforced unless relatives exert pressure the other way.

But beyond the legal questions, it is the Canadian-made TV program, shown Wednesday night -- called "The Suicide Tourist" but renamed "Right to die?" for its UK broadcast -- which has sparked the most intense interest and debate. It follows Craig Ewert, a retired British Chicago university professor, as he travels to Zurich to take his life five months after he was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease. The illness left him without the use of his legs, in a wheelchair, and dependent on full-time care from his wife. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe. When he could no longer swallow, he decided to take his life. Euthanasia was an alternative to "utter hell", he said.

The controversy was over the showing of the moment of death -- one of the last taboos in reality TV.

The dangers are obvious. The problem with voyeurism is that people imitate -- beginning with Ewert’s son, who lives outside Chicago, and has announced he will follow in his father’s footsteps. We are creatures of mimetic - imitative -- desire; why should a severely depressed person not want to do the same? The documentary was well made: it was emotional, artistically powerful, obviously biased in favour of the "choice", and featuring at its center an admirable man in most ordinary senses. There can be few better advertisements for what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death. And the documentary was promoting a crime.

Yet most British people think assisting suicide should be lawful: 80 per cent, according to polls, believe doctors should be allowed to prepare the kind of lethal dose prepared by Dr. Hans-Jurg Schweizer in the programme.  

I didn’t watch it, but there’s enough in this clip to get a sense of it. Here’s what happens. Dr Schweizer pours out the lethal cocktail, tells Ewert that if he drinks this he will die, and wishes him a "happy journey." Ewert, from his small yellow bed in a nondescript room, chokes down the drug cocktail, slurping apple juice through a pink straw as the ninth movement of Beethoven’s symphony plays in the background. Then he dies, his wife by his side.

Everything -- from the serene and supportive doctor to the the tearful, hand-holding wife -- suggests "normal death". Yet that’s just what it isn’t.
For all the talk of embarking on a "journey", that’s exactly what Mr Ewert was not doing. He was refusing the journey. Rather than clamber onto the rope-bridge, he was throwing himself into the ravine.

And for all that the program tries to get the viewer to respect the "choice" behind the decision, it put me in mind of the execution that closes Dead Man Walking. It’s the same chilly despair, the same ruthlessness, the same stamping on a precious gift -- even if in one case it is involuntary, and in the second case "chosen".

If the program shows one thing, it’s the gulf that separates the spark of life going out, and someone snuffing it out. Whether a person killing another person (murder, war, abortion, euthanasia), the state killing a person (the death penalty legal in many states of the US), or a person killing himself, assisted or no, the deliberate destruction of life is a monstrous thing. No amount of Beethoven and pity can hide that fact.

There is such a thing as a good death: it’s when God remains in charge of the moment, and a person surrenders to His invitation of goodness and love while being tended and cared for. The death of Cardinal Dulles is a noble example of it -- as the love and hope that it has provoked here shows.

That’s why no good death ever came out of killing. Because God doesn’t kill. 

But you can be sure that demands to legalise assisted suicide will gather pace. As we have become more comfortable, our tolerance of suffering has diminished at a time when medicine doesn’t just cure and relieve -- it also prolongs lives which to a certain eye are simply not worth living.

If you are a secular humanist, like most British people, you believe human beings are special because they are rational. And they have dignity because you can see it in them: the way they struggle, and make the best of things, and do so cheerfully. But when your mind goes, and your composure with it, and you’re crippled and crazy, where’s the value of life then?

Ewert was typical of many of those who leave the train at the station marked Dignitas: he was an extreme rationalist. What he says in the program is all carefully calculated and thought through -- except the most vital thought of all, which is that his life was created and not his to end. "This ventilator is God", is how he dispenses with that crucial thought. 

No wonder he says: "You can watch only so much of yourself drain away before you look at what is left and say ’This is an empty shell’." It’s all he saw. That’s all despair ever sees.

For the time being, the law holds; politicians, starting with the Prime Minister, have rushed to defend it. But in a country of secular humanists, for how long?

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10 years 1 month ago
Yes, very chilly - especially since others may soon be deciding for you. Also, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the plight of those who make the choice for death over a "living hell". Or, for those who support this choice. No doubt some will try to modify the chilliness by making a ritual or liturgy of passing and goodbyes of some sort. Maybe even an annointing of the sick and then a drinking of the potion. And while we are on this subject consider that the biggest killer of all is not murder, war, abortion or euthanasia, but rather the life style of the haves - and the deaths of the have nots. Some have made a bold attempt to overcome this but the power of Original Sin seems stronger than human plans and actions and is proof of it's existence. To die rather than sin has always been the mark of a martyr. To live in our society is, frankly, to sin were one to be able to quantitize the deaths resultant from your last prime rib dinner. Or, excursion to Rome or some shrine. So, when we condemn the acts of others we need to keep in mind our own. Maybe we need to live harder for those who want to live but are denied life and not by law but by care help those who want to die.
10 years 1 month ago
Three comments here. First is that the legal and moral issues are separate. Society need not punish every action the majority disapproves of. Not prosecuting is not an endorsement of the act. Second, arguing from natural law, Thomas More included in his Utopian society the kind of assisted suicide now being practiced. That is not to say this should be endorsed, but it should give us pause in saying that there is no natural law justification for medical suicide. Third, it would be quite a different thing if a person of faith suicided medically - that an avowed atheist does so is not a shocking thing and I suspect God will deal with him differently than he would a religious person.
10 years 1 month ago
"There is such a thing as a good death: it's when God remains in charge of the moment, and a person surrenders to His invitation of goodness and love while being tended and cared for." I don't know if there is such a thing as a "good death" or not, but I don't think it's something over which people have control. Not everyone is tended and cared for, not everyone believes in God, and there are different levels of suffering. I've watched my grandmother die of Parkinson's and my mother die of lung cancer, and they suffered a lot and to the end - I didn't notice any sign of that "ggod death" you mentioned.


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