Monday, August 10, 2009

Some Morbid Thoughts about Romance

This post is based on a report in a recent issue of The Strait Times, Singapore which I read today. To me, it is also the most gripping tale of romance I read in recent times; and though both the hero and the heroine die at the end of the story, I do not think it is a tragedy.

She was seventy-four. He was eighty-five. She was a dancer. He was a musician.She was condemned to die. He was condemned to live. Diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas, her days were numbered. On the contrary, his end, he felt, was not near.

Over the years, he had gone nearly blind and his hearing had nearly failed. He had to depend on her and now she was herself on the deathbed.They had been married for fifty-four years. Her end being imminent, he faced the prospect of life without his soulmate, something he could not bear. He talked to her and they jointly made up their mind. They made a pact: to die together.

There was a snag, though. As most other countries, Britain, where they lived, too does not allow assisted suicide. The liberal Swiss laws allow you to assist in suicide provided there is no profit-motive. They travelled to Zurich, where Dignitas, a voluntary not-for-profit group arranges, death in a clinic for a fee of USD 7,000 per customer. Dignitas makes a digital recording of the deaths, to protect the doctors and the nurses from charges of coercing the patient.

The couple chose death by barbiturates. They drank a small quantity of a clear liquid and lay down on the bed next to each other, holding hands. They fell asleep, and in minutes, they were both gone. Their son, who was beside them in their last moments, described it as a ‘very civilized final act’.

Civilised? Is not ‘assisted suicide’ another name for murder? Is euthanasia justified?‘Death on demand’ is a principle protagonists of euthanasia like Dignitas believe in. Some countries like Netherlands allow those suffering from unbearable pain to snuff out their lives. A patient in Oregon can opt for euthanasia if two doctors give him no more than six months.

Paradoxical it may sound, but replacement of treatment with palliative care, removal of the feeding tubes, withdrawal of the ventilators, etc can be merciful choices. However, each of these is a slippery step, riddled with legal, moral and ethical issues.

Hers might have been, but his was not even a case of euthanasia. Even if her ‘assisted death’ could be justified by declaring euthanasia legal, how could one rationalize advancement of his death? Despair (that your spouse is terminally ill) and sorrow (from a partner’s demise) are certainly not sufficient grounds for facilitating death, are they?

Yes, says Ludwig Minelli, founder of Dignitas. You cannot restrict the right to assisted death to just terminally ill persons. Personal autonomy and dignity are precious values. The society has no business to assign a higher value to my life than I myself do, to the point of protecting me from myself. Wry concepts like sanctity of life make no sense to a person in excruciating pain, incurable agony and suffering, says Minelli.

If a bereaved widower sees no reason to live any more, if a travelling salesman reduced to a breathing heap of bones in a nasty accident sees no future, if the cost of postponing death is prohibitive, I think Dignitas is the answer. Would you turn to Dignitas? I will.

(The characters in this real-life story are Sir Edward Downes, former conductor of Britain’s Royal Opera and Joan, a former ballerina.)


Twisha Mukherjee said...

That was a wonderful. Many people I know have tagged "suicide" as the act of a coward: one who's scared to face life's odds resort to suicide (assisted, or otherwise. But, I've often felt, that it takes more courage to cut your hand with a blade than just sleep it off. Assisted suicide, of course, doesn't require physical pain, essentially. But, it takes courage to decide that you don't wanna live anymore. I'm not saying that it wouldn't take courage to live on amidst the worst times. But, it's wrong to look at suicides negatively. Moreover, euthanasia is also "religiously" correct, I had once read this counter-argument that a doctor who kills a patient suffering from a disease that has no cure, might feel guilty, if the cure was discovered or invented within a few months. I think, that would not happen, if euthanasia was legal everywhere. It's just about what we're made to believe in, psychologically and academically.
This story, however, apart from these subtle issues of "choosing to die", shows that "mental depression" should also, at times be treated as a terminal disease of the psyche, as many other psychological disorders!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

I couldn't agree with you more. After all, "whose life is it any way?".

Sudipto Basu said...

Euthanasia is, by an extension of democratic principles, one's personal area of judgement. The court should not have any issues provided that the decision has not been coerced. After having had enough of life, maybe even I'd wish to depart in a jiffy.

As for Twisha's thoughts, I am one who considers some suicides to be cowardly. All apples evidently do not go to the same basket. The bit about the doctor feeling guilty is an intriguing angle.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

an issue that teases us out of thought.