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Everyday Ethics

The case of British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan, who, it was reported today, traveled to a Swiss clinic to avail themselves of legally assisted suicide, is raising ethical, legal and moral questions worldwide.

Edward, 85, had gone blind and nearly deaf, but was not actually terminally ill. According to the Huffington Post, it was his wife Joan, 74, who had developed terminal cancer. She wanted to die with dignity, and he simply did not want to survive the love of his life.

However, it’s illegal for physicians to assist with euthanasia in the UK. So they went abroad to fulfil their final wishes. A clinic in Zurich by the name of Dignitas ‘caters’ — if that is the right word — to foreign clients, or ‘suicide tourists’ as some have dubbed them. (This reminds me a little of the questionable ethics involved in my fertility tourism post.)

In theory, I am a proponent of the right to die. I think that anything I wouldn’t hesitate to consider humane for my pet is an option I’d like to have for myself, or for my elderly loved ones. I know that many people argue it’s immoral, that only God has the right to take a life, that it’s murder even when it’s done with the best of intentions. Yet I disagree. I believe that immense suffering can be avoided with the judicious and ethical application of medically assisted euthanasia.

But, back in the real world, by what criteria do doctors decide if a patient’s request for physician-assisted suicide should be granted?

Must one be terminally ill? (Apparently, not in Switzerland.) Must you be judged to be in sufficiently good mental health to sincerely want to off yourself? Who decides which requests are legitimate, and which may be the grief of the moment talking? How long should the waiting period be for those not in immediate medical crisis? It seems the guidelines vary wildly from country to country and state to state within the U.S. and many countries avoid this quagmire of an issue entirely by outlawing assisted suicide. 

Lastly, if it’s illegal in your country, should you be allowed to travel elsewhere to receive a service you’re not allowed in your own? (I think so.) 

Oh, by the way, Dignitas charges the very dignified sum of 10,000 Swiss francs to help you die. That’s roughly $9,200. Allegations have surfaced that Dignitas’ practices are at best questionable, and at worst, downright abhorrent — and that they even accept bequeathments from the soon-to-be-deceased in addition to their medical fees. Does this potential profit motive change your thinking on the issue? 

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