HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dignity and Control

Saturday's NewYorkTImes ran a moving story about Ms. Purdy who is facing some difficulty decisions as she considers how she best copes with her multiple schlerosis and her desire to have some say in her medical treatment at the end of her life.  The article provides,

Multiple sclerosis came into Debbie Purdy’s life about the same time as her husband, a Cuban jazz violinist named Omar Puente. “He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Spanish,” she recalled. “What we had was jazz, and a dictionary.” When she received her diagnosis, one of her first thoughts was: “How do you say ‘multiple sclerosis’ in Spanish?” . . .

But there may be a limit to the Purdy-Puente partnership, so close it feels almost symbiotic. The possibility exists that Ms. Purdy, 45, will get so sick that she no longer wants to live. Should that happen, she says, she plans to travel to an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland and drink a lethal cocktail of drugs. As things now stand, she would have to go without her husband, she says, because helping someone die — even, say, by pushing a wheelchair onto the airplane — is illegal in Britain. It is her choice alone, Ms. Purdy said.

“Omar’s being prepared to go to jail because he loves me and respects my choices is the same reason I wouldn’t want him to go to jail: because I love him,” she said. “I’m not even prepared to let him be interviewed by the police.”

Ms. Purdy has taken her private struggle and turned herself into the latest public face of an anguished, longstanding debate about assisted suicide in Britain. She has sued the government in an effort to force officials to provide assurance that if Mr. Puente did help her die in Switzerland, he would not be prosecuted.  Last week, her latest appeal failed when three Court of Appeal judges ruled that although they sympathized with Ms. Purdy, only Parliament could change the law. She is now considering whether to pursue the case further in the courts or to lobby for a new law.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. In recent years, about 90 Britons have killed themselves in the clinic, which is in Zurich. So far, no one back home has been prosecuted for helping them, but that does not mean it will not happen. “Many have faced police questioning and agonizing months waiting for the final decision not to prosecute,” said Ms. Purdy’s lawyer, Saimo Chahal. . . .

Mr. Puente, 47, who teaches and travels the world playing music, was away but spoke by telephone later. “Debbie was the woman I chose to be my wife,” he said. “I’ve seen the whole process, from when she was a very strong woman with a wonderful big bottom and strong legs, to using a walking stick to a wheelchair. She is still articulate and enthusiastic and full of life. She doesn’t want to die.”  He does not want her to die either, and especially not alone. But, he added: “I love that woman and I don’t want her to suffer badly. Apart from everything else, she wants to control her life and make her own decisions.” . . .

But when you have a progressive disease, time moves in the wrong direction. If Ms. Purdy exhausts her options and cannot get the assurance she needs from the government, she is prepared to go to Switzerland alone, she said. But she would have to do it while she is still physically able, which would be long before she is ready to die, she said.  She has worked out all the logistics, including how to get the $6,000 the trip would cost. That does not mean she will do it; she just wants the choice.   “I don’t want to kill myself,” she said. “I don’t want to go to Switzerland and end my life early. But this is a security blanket.”  She thinks often about what she can withstand. At what point does a life slip from manageable to untenable?

“When I was 20 and jumping out of airplanes, I thought being in a wheelchair would be unbearable,” Ms. Purdy said. “But it’s not. I thought asking people for help would be horrible and unbearable.   “But what I consider dignity has changed, and what I consider unbearable and horrible has changed,” she said. “Having a stranger pick me up off my bathroom floor, that’s not undignified. What is undignified is having a stranger say that I have no control over my own life.”

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