Death as a Lifestyle Choice

"If you, my beloved, have died ... all the leaves will fall on my breast ... it will rain on my soul night and day ... the snow will burn my heart ... I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow ... my feet will want to march to where you sleep ... but I shall go on living ... "

(From “The Dead Woman” by Pablo Neruda)

A fine sentiment, but what a struggle. How tempting -- and how romantic -- to join your beloved in easeful death. And you can’t get more easeful than a Swiss clinic.

Earlier this month, British conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, traveled to Dignitas -- the Zurich-based suicide clinic -- with his wife Joan, 74, who had terminal cancer. Sir Edward was frail, with failing eyesight and hearing, but not terminally ill. After fifty-four years of marriage, the couple drank a fatal draft of poison and “fell asleep” for the last time, holding hands across the bed. Their son described his parents’ last moments as “very calm and civilized.” Who could object to that? Surely, in a civilized society, everyone has the right to a calm death. Dignitas has found a gap in the market, and countries like the UK, where assisted suicide is illegal, should get with the program.

The founder of Dignitas, human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli, sees nothing wrong with making his product available to as many people as possible. His motives are noble: death is a “human right without conditions” and a “marvelous possibility." Besides, if people stick around needlessly, they cost the taxpayer money. Jenny McCartney writes in the Telegraph:

[He] offered an economic argument for the efficiency of his clinic. "For every 50 suicide attempts we have one suicide and the others are failing, with huge costs to the National Health Service."

Forty-nine people still alive because they didn’t use a professional? That is failure indeed. Mr. Minelli has missed a marketing trick here. Just think of all the money that is wasted at The Samaritans, training staff to talk people out of suicide. They could be replaced by a recorded message saying: “Suicidal? Don’t botch it. Phone Dignitas -- stone dead or your money back. Two for one offer -- spouse goes free.” And unlike most products, there will be no need for an after-sales service.

Perhaps I am too dismissive. Last year 23-year-old Daniel James, almost completely paralyzed in a rugby accident, asked his parents to take him to Dignitas to end a life in which, his mother said:

He couldn’t walk, had no hand function, but constant pain in all of his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24-hour care. … Dan had tried to commit suicide three times but this was unsuccessful due to his disability. Other than to starve himself, to travel to Switzerland was his only option.

It is difficult not to feel compassion for Daniel James, as did the British authorities when it decided not to prosecute his parents. But Dignitas goes beyond this: as a “human right” and a “marvelous possibility,” suicide is a lifestyle -- or deathstyle -- choice. Jenny McCartney brings out the contradiction, and naked self-interest, in Minelli’s position:

On the one hand mental illness is deemed to be an unbearable source of distress that justifies an exit strategy; on the other, such people are held to be of sufficiently ordered mind to consent to assisted dying. You might say that Mr. Minelli can't have it both ways, but then he doesn't appear to mind much which way he has it.