The XX Factor

Til Joint Assisted Suicide Do Us Part

A sobering story from Europe: It’s been announced that the British conductor Sir Edward Downes died last week, alongside his wife, at an assisted-suicide facility in Switzerland . Lady Downes was in the final stages of terminal cancer; Sir Edward was ailing (“almost blind and increasingly deaf,” according to his son), but his condition wasn’t fatal. He just wanted to die with his wife.

Of course, “just” probably isn’t a fair word to use in this context; it minimizes the enormity of the decision-not to mention the profound commitment that these two people, married for over five decades, had to one another. But then again, in some ways it feels like precisely the right word: What could be more natural, more simple, than this decision?

I keep thinking of Baucis and Philemon, the elderly couple from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who are granted a single wish by the gods. (The story was one of the readings at an old friend’s wedding last month, and it’s been skulking around in my brain ever since.) In Mary Zimmerman’s stage adaptation , the two old folks whisper for a moment, and then Baucis says to Zeus: “Having spent all our lives together, we ask that you allow us to die at the same moment.” Philemon adds, “I’d hate to see my wife’s grave, or have her weep over mine.”

At the end of their lives, the gods grant their wish (in fine Ovidian fashion) by turning them into a pair of trees:

Baucis saw Philomen put out leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis put out leaves, and as the tops of the trees grew over their two faces, they exchanged words, while they still could, saying, in the same breath: “Farewell, O dear companion”, as, in the same breath, the bark covered them, concealing their mouths. The people of Bithynia still show the neighbouring trees, there, that sprang from their two bodies.

It’s the simplicity and directness of this description (taken from another, contemporary prose translation ) that’s ultimately so affecting. And there’s something of that bracing quality to the Times ’ newspaperly account of the Downes’ final moments:

On Friday, the [Downes’] children said, they watched, weeping, as their parents drank “a small quantity of clear liquid” before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands. “Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.”

The son goes on to say, “It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country [Britain] doesn’t allow it.”

I tend to agree, but what do you think? Should the right to assisted suicide-if you even support the notion in the first place-be extended to the longterm partners of the terminally ill? And if so, how strict do we need to be about defining “longterm”? Should the partner have to exhibit some level of illness as well? What about a lifelong friend? Just how slippery would this slope become?

Photograph by Getty Images.