The XX Factor

In Search of Good Arguments Against Edward Downes’ Right to Die

Nina, I too was touched by the quiet, unassuming dignity of Edward Downes’ choice to die clutching the hand of his sick wife. It seems to matter very much to critics whether Downes himself were ill or not, which is interesting given the universal prognosis for 85-year-old men (and, indeed, all of us.) Is there really a significant ethical difference between his choice and that of his cancer-stricken wife? Maybe these are the kind of arbitrary distinctions that make a once-taboo process suddenly conceivable for a liberal, advanced society.

I find the most thoughtful objections to legalized euthanasia to be those that deal with the issues of obligation. There is the suggestion that women are culturally conditioned to avoid being burdensome, and few people are more burdensome than bedridden, terminally ill elderly parents and grandparents. Women might feel disproportionately obligated to end their lives. So too one could imagine the Downes’ decision becoming culturally obligatory for elderly couples; the measure of a loving relationship might be the choice to end it together.

These are the kinds of questions that crop up whenever a situation shifts from the realm of inevitability to that of responsibility. (What would happen if we allowed women to terminate their pregnancies? Adults to divorce? Daughters to live away from home?) And the easy way out-the refusal to wrangle with them by removing death from the process of decision-making-comes at the price of terrible suffering.

Photograph of a hearing on euthanasia in the European Union by Frank Fife/AFP/Getty Images.