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Rev. Dr. Martha R. Jacobs Headshot

Would Your Faith Assist You In Dying A "Natural" Death?

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The "case" of Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes has fascinated and bothered me since I first read about them in 2009. Sir Edward, 85, and Lady Downes, 74, were devoted to one another. For half a century they had been an inspiring influence on the cultural life of Britain's orchestras.

Then, the children sent the following to the local press:

"It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our parents, Edward and Joan Downes, on Friday, 10 July. After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. They died peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing, with the help of the Swiss organisation Dignitas, in Zurich... They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally. Our parents had no religious beliefs and there will be no funeral." [1]

Lady Downes had advanced cancer. Sir Edward had lost his eyesight and was almost deaf but, other than that, he might have lived for many more years. And yet, he chose to die with his wife. Was it because he loved her so much that he could not imagine life without her? His wife had been caring for him since his loss of eyesight and hearing. Was he fearful of living in a world without sound and sight on his own? Their children were grown and living their own lives. Was he worried that he might become a burden to them? These are some of my questions. You may have others. They are questions to which we will never know the answers. But, there is another, more global question that has been raised by some people. Should Lady Downes have been able to die in her home in England instead of having to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland?

Euthanasia is illegal in England, hence the Downes' traveled to Switzerland. There was an investigation by Scotland Yard. No charges were filed against their son, who had assisted his parents in traveling to Switzerland, because "there was sufficient evidence to prosecute him for assisting his parents' suicide but it was not considered to be in the public interest to do so."[2] This action by Scotland Yard follows the changes in the law lords guidelines, which had changed because of Debbie Purdy. Ms. Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to end her life. She went to the House of Lords which ruled that "it is a breach of her human rights not to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if he accompanies her to Swiss clinic Dignitas where she wishes to die if her health worsens.[3] Because of her question the guidelines were changed. "The guidelines state that anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to be charged."[4]

The strong desire/demand for people to be able to take control of the end of their life is not likely to be settled in my lifetime. There are too many legitimate concerns that people have that it will be used in a way that is counter to what the law would allow -- including possibly beginning a slippery slope to those who are living with disabilities, with others determining that they should not continue to live, even if they consider their life worth living.

My reason for writing this blog, though, is not to take sides one way or the other. What has continued to both fascinate and bother me is the last sentence of the press releases release issued by the family: "Our parents had no religious beliefs and there will be no funeral." I wonder if they would have chosen to go to Dignitas had they had a religious belief. Would their faith have given them the strength to go through a "natural" death?

Do you think that your faith would assist you in handling the pain and loss of control so that you would die a "natural" death? Do you think your faith would keep you from considering dying in the way that the Downes' chose to die? While I know that until one faces these kinds of situations there is really no way to know how you might really react, I believe it is important to consider situations such as these. They help to sort out what our values and beliefs are and how they affect how we live and how we die.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jul/14/edward-downes-assisted-suicide-law
[2] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article7069252.ece
[3]" http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jul/30/debbie-purdy-assisted-suicide-legal-victory
[4] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article7069252.ece

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