Friday, August 14, 2009

No Exit

by Joel Marks

Published with the title "Suicide should be a choice available to all" in the New Haven Register on July 21, 2009, page A6

It is with relief that I learned of the suicide of British orchestra conductor Edward Downes and his ballerina/choreographer wife Joan Downes. Married for 54 years, they were inseparable in death as in life. They had chosen to die together because Joan was suffering from terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas, and Edward had become increasingly dependent on her assistance because of his own encroaching blindness and deafness. He was 85, she 74 when, in the company of their adult children at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, they drank a fatal concoction that put them into a peaceful, permanent sleep.

To me, a philosopher, their death summons up the very image of Socrates drinking the hemlock in his prison cell. Although this was his execution in dismal circumstances, he did have the option of escape into exile from Athens. In a sense, then, his death was a suicide. He chose it because he thought it would be ridiculous for an old man like himself to try to run away and hide from death, when he believed there was nothing to fear about an afterlife. He had led a full life; the mode of his death would be painless and quick; he was surrounded by good friends; and, even though his particular case may have been a miscarriage of justice, he had principled reasons for abiding by the laws of the city-state that had nurtured him his whole life. Thus, as poignantly depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates boldly and cheerfully met his end.

But it is not because of that association that the news of the Downeses’ suicide brings me some measure of peace as well. Rather, it is the knowledge that such an option exists somewhere in the world. The right to end one’s own life with assistance from others is strangely denied to most of us.

We usually hear the argument against assisted suicide that an industry of death would inevitable arise, which, for economic reasons, would put undue pressure on old or ill or impaired people to end their lives prematurely. We would be made to feel guilty about burdening our loved ones with the responsibility of taking care of us, and about the good fortune we would be denying them by spending their potential inheritance on our own prolonged care. Ultimately the government would get in on the act, pointing to those who lingered as a main drain on the budget, thereby crimping other social goods, such as education and health care for the young.

There is certainly truth to that. But what follows? To me it is not obvious that all of those reasons for feeling guilty are inappropriate. Furthermore, we should consider the alternative. As things stand now, there is a massive industry of life … of often long, pointless, even painful life … which surely saps the economy and good will and welfare of all as much as any industry of death would.

And on top of that is the misery of those lingering lives for the sufferer him- or herself, as well as the low-level anxiety that shadows all of us throughout our younger years when we happen to contemplate the “No Exit” sign society has posted at life’s door.

As I now am at an age where close contemporaries are dead or dying, I am acutely aware of the prospects. I hope that I shall be so fortunate as to be able to choose the timing and mode of my death when its imminence is made known. I would like to leave all my good friends and loved ones with a memory of a fully-functioning, independent, and contented fellow. I would be very happy to know that I am able to provide for some of them in death as in life, rather than squandering my assets on some corporation to warehouse me in despairing boredom. And I would like to treat all of them to one final, all-expenses-paid holiday in Zurich, which they will retain in lifelong memories, while I remain to check in to the Dignitas clinic.

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