The Magazine

Abandoning the Most Vulnerable

Britain moves closer to legalizing assisted suicide.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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On July 4, 1995, Myrna Lebov, age 52, committed suicide in her Manhattan apartment. The case generated national headlines when her husband, George Delury, announced that he had assisted Lebov's suicide at her request because she was suffering the debilitations of progressive multiple sclerosis.

Delury became an instant celebrity. He was acclaimed as a dedicated husband willing to risk jail to help his beloved wife achieve her desired end. The assisted-suicide movement set up a defense fund and renewed calls for legalization. Delury made numerous television appearances and was invited to speak to a convention of the American Psychiatric Association. He signed a deal for a book, later published under the title But What If She Wants to Die? Delury soon copped a plea to attempted manslaughter and served a few months in jail.

Had Delury acted in England or Wales today--rather than in New York in 1995--he almost surely would not have been prosecuted. Even though assisted suicide remains a crime in the U.K., newly published British guidelines have effectively decriminalized some categories of assisted suicide by instructing local prosecutors when bringing charges in such deaths is to be deemed "not in the public interest."

The guidelines were developed in response to a ruling by the U.K.'s highest court. A woman named Debbie Purdy--who like Lebov has progressive multiple sclerosis--plans to kill herself in one of Switzerland's suicide clinics if her suffering becomes too much to bear. Wanting to be accompanied by her husband, but fearful he could be prosecuted, she sued, demanding to be told by law enforcement ahead of time whether he would face charges.

Purdy won the day. Noting that other recent cases of "suicide tourism" (as such trips taken to Switzerland to die are called) had not been prosecuted, Britain's Law Lords ordered the head prosecutor to define the facts and circumstances under which the law would--and would not--be enforced.

The resulting guidelines declared that assisted suicides of people with a "terminal illness," a "severe and incurable disability," or "a severe degenerative physical condition"--whether occurring overseas or at home--should not be prosecuted if the assister was a close friend or relative of the deceased, was motivated by compassion, and the victim "had a clear, settled, and informed wish to commit suicide," among other criteria--exactly the circumstances Delury said motivated him to facilitate Lebov's death.

What do these guidelines teach us about assisted suicide? First, "death with dignity" is not just about terminal illness: It is about fear of disability and debilitation. A husband assisting the suicide of his wife, who wanted to die because their son became a quadriplegic, would be prosecuted under the guidelines, but he wouldn't face charges for assisting the suicide of the son.

Second, the guidelines prove that assisted suicide is not a medical act. Nothing in them requires a physician's review or participation.

Third, the court ruling and guidelines illustrate how the rule of law is crumbling. What matters most today is not principle, but emotion-driven personal narrative.

Perhaps most alarmingly, decriminalizing assisted suicide in these cases sends the insidious societal message that the lives of the dying and disabled are not as worthy of protecting as those of others. In this sense, the guidelines are an abandonment of society's most vulnerable citizens, exposing at least some to the acute danger of being coerced into death by relatives or friends.

For proof, we need only turn again to George Delury. Here, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.

Delury made a crucial mistake that changed his favorable public perception. Perhaps because he was planning to write a book, he kept a computer diary of the events leading up to -Lebov's death--and its content shattered any pretense that he was motivated by love or compassion. To the contrary, George Delury put Myrna Lebov out of his misery.

The diary showed that Lebov did not have an unwavering and long-stated desire to die, as Delury had claimed. Rather, as often happens with people struggling with debilitating illnesses, her mood waxed and waned. One day she would be suicidal--but the next day she was engaged in life. Delury, moreover, encouraged his wife to kill herself, or as he put it, "to decide to quit." He researched her antidepressant medication to see if it could kill her, and when she took less than the prescribed amount, which in itself could cause depression, he stashed the surplus until he had enough for a poisonous brew.