Is It Ever OK To Assist An Elder To Commit Suicide?

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depressedwomanIn a small county in central California, an 86 year old retired firefighter was sentenced to two days in jail and probation for assisting his wife to commit suicide.

The Tribune News in San Luis Obispo reported the story with little detail, but did report that George Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting the suicide, after the couple had long ago agreed to a suicide pact.  They had been married since 1947, and apparently had this agreement to die together.  Only George somehow failed in his own attempt.

One odd part of the story was why they chose to try to carry out their pact together at that particular time. Neither was suffering from a terminal illness, and they were financially secure.  They had adult children.  According to the report, they agreed with the philosophy of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an advocate of physician-assisted suicide.

What Does the Light Sentence Mean?

Mr. Taylor had already served the two day jail sentence, so essentially, the consequence of the event was probation for him, and living with his failed attempt to keep the pact with his wife.  He was ordered to get counseling.

The court’s light sentence may reflect an underlying philosophy that elderly people do have a right to die, even if assisted by a loved one.  The result would probably have been very different if George had been a younger person.

Is our society evolving in its attitude toward elder suicide?  It is clearly an emotionally laden area, with sharp differences in personal, religious and moral beliefs.  Do we, as a society have a right to insist that someone who does not want to live must do so?  If a loved one begged you to help him or her die, would you be able to do it?  Would you be able to refuse, particularly if the person were suffering?

A Personal Story of a Suicidal Client

My only personal experience with this issue was in representing a client who was in the later stages of multiple sclerosis. She was wheelchair bound, paralyzed and had the use of only one arm.  She was able to do some things for herself, but depended on a caregiver to help with all activities of her daily life.  Her case had nothing to do with her disease, and it was resolved.  Before she received her settlement, she asked me to find her a lawyer who would come to her apartment and draw up a will to specify who would receive her settlement funds. I did so.

She said that she would not be here any longer by the time her settlement came in.  She gave me specific instructions as to how to distribute the settlement funds to her loved ones.  She said that she was losing the ability to use her arm and that she soon would be unable to eat or drink by herself. She had decided long before that when she reached that point, she did not want to live any longer. Her time had come.

Although I suggested counseling, speaking to her clergy person and the suicide hotline, she was adamant that she had done all that already and her mind was made up.  I felt sad, conflicted and yet resigned to do as she asked. I complied with her wishes, as my lawyerly duty required that I do.

I learned shortly afterwards that she had indeed committed suicide.  No more was said about it by anyone.  I mailed the checks to the person who was the executor of her estate and the file was closed.

For a long time afterwards, I thought about it.  I believed that she did have the right to do what she wanted to do but I could not escape the feeling of sadness, my own tears, and  somehow wanting her to feel that her life was worth living.  The matter was under her control and no one had to decide whether to help her.  She chose to exit before she lost that control.

Perhaps George Taylor and his wife also wanted to make their choices before losing control.  Perhaps some change was going on that others did not know about and that was what prompted them to act when they did.  We won’t know the answers.  What we do know is that end of life issues remain controversial in our society.  We confront our feelings about them in our own hearts.  In the meantime, the idea to live each day as if it were your only day is a good one to embrace.

Until next time,

Carolyn Rosenblatt



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