Human Interest

edward downes, joan downes
Dec. 15 1967, Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, with their baby son, Caractacus.

Double Suicide of Conductor and Wife Invites Controversy

July 16, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Celebrated British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan Downes, died with assistance at a clinic in Switzerland. Their deaths rekindle the thorny debate over assisted suicide.

Switzerland Offers Back Door to Death

Edward Downes, 85, and Joan Downes, 74, visited the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland over the weekend and, according to their children, died “peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing,” the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) Web site reported.

Mr. Downes, known as Ted to his friends, was a conductor for the Royal Opera House for more than 50 years and was losing his vision and hearing. Lady Downes, formerly a dancer and later her husband’s personal assistant, was diagnosed with cancer.

Although the couples’ friends were initially shocked by their decision, Sir John Tooley, director of the Royal Opera House, said it was actually characteristic of Mr. Downes. “I don't know anyone who led his life with more self-determination than Ted,” Tooley explained.

Mike George, the BBC Philharmonic's senior producer, described how Lady Downes would guide her husband to the stage, as his vision declined. “She was his eyes,” The Guardian quoted George as saying. “Each lived absolutely for the other.”

According to The Guardian, assisted suicide is an offense in the U.K. under the Suicide Act of 1961; the Crown Prosecution Service judges each situation on a case-by-case basis. The SBC Web site reported that in Britain, assisting another person in suicide is punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

“More than 100 Britons have been helped to die by Dignitas since 1998, including another elderly couple earlier this year,” SBC reported. To date, there have been no prosecutions of relatives or friends who have helped someone travel to Switzerland to die, according to SBC. No charges have been brought against relatives of the Downes’, The Guardian reported.

Opinion & Analysis: Should assisted suicide be legalized?

According to the Death with Dignity National Center, “The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one's own desires and beliefs.”

Although an amendment to the U.K.’s 1961 Suicide Act was rejected in the U.K. in July, proponents of physician-assisted suicide have become more vocal and are even setting some boundaries.

Jo Cartwright, of the UK activist group Dignity in Dying, told The Guardian, “We need to regulate and safeguard it in this country making it available for only those who are terminally ill and mentally competent.”

In 2000, Dr. Steven J. Taylor, a critic of physician-assisted suicide, summarized the two arguments in an article for the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University. On one hand, some terminally ill people believe in the option of “death with dignity,” Taylor wrote.

Others believe, however, “that it is never moral to take the life of another human being, that physicians must always act as healers—never as killers,” according to Taylor. Supporting critics of the practice, Taylor notes that Dr. Jack Kevorkian has assisted in the deaths of more than 130 people in the U.S. According to a 1997 report from the Detroit Free Press, 60 percent of those people didn’t have terminal illnesses.

Historical Context: The physician-assisted suicide movement

According to The Providence Journal, on May 25, 1995, “The Northern Territory of Australia [became] the first jurisdiction in the world to allow doctors to take the lives of terminally ill patients who request help dying.”

The Journal offers extensive coverage of the movement in the U.S. and Britain, with special attention to court cases and papal decisions.

On Oct. 27, 1997, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act. According to the state’s official Web site, the act “allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.”

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