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.

That wasn't all. He worked assiduously at destroying Lebov's will to live by making her feel worthless and a burden. On March 28, 1995, Delury wrote in his diary that he planned to tell his wife:

I have work to do, people to see, places to travel. But no one asks about my needs. I have fallen prey to the tyranny of a victim. You are sucking my life out of my [sic] like a vampire and nobody cares. In fact, it would appear that I am about to be cast in the role of villain because I no longer believe in you.

Delury later admitted on the NBC program Dateline that he had shown his wife that very passage.

That Delury wanted Lebov to kill herself is beyond dispute. On May 1 he wrote:

Sheer hell. Myrna is more or less euphoric. She spoke of writing a book today. [Lebov was a published author, having written Not Just a Secretary in 1984.] She's interested in everything, wants everything explained, and believes that every bit of bad news has some way out. .  .  . It's all too much.

On June 10, Delury's diary described an argument with Lebov that started when she left a message to her niece that "things are looking splendid":

I blew up! Shouting into the phone that everything was just the same, it was simply Myrna feeling different. I told Myrna that she had hurt me very badly, not my feelings, but physically and emotionally. "Now what will Beverly [Lebov's sister] think? That I'm lying about how tough things are here." I put it to Myrna bluntly--"If you won't take care of me, I won't take care of you."

On July 3, 1995, the day before Myrna's death, Delury wrote:

Myrna is now questioning the efficacy of solution, a sure sign that she will not take [the overdose] tonight and doesn't want to. So, confusion and hesitation strike again. If she changes her mind tonight and does decide to go ahead, I will be surprised.

Finally, on July 4, Delury got what he wanted: Lebov swallowed the overdose of antidepressant medicine that her husband prepared for her and died.

Once the contents of his diary were publicly revealed, though, Delury's defense of "compassion" became inoperative, which is why he accepted the plea bargain.

That still wasn't the end of the story. In But What If She Wants to Die?--published after double jeopardy prevented another prosecution--Delury wrote that he hadn't just mixed -Lebov's drugs, but also smothered her with a plastic bag because he was worried that the amount she ingested might not be sufficient to kill her. Thus, Myrna Lebov didn't really die by suicide: She was killed by her husband. (Delury died by his own hand in 2007, at the age of 74.)

Thanks to the assisted suicide guidelines, potential Myrna -Lebovs in Britain are now at the mercy of future George Delurys. And those Delurys know full well that, so long as they don't keep inculpating diaries, they will have little trouble convincing prosecutors that their motive was compassion, a claim readily believed in a society so fearful and disdainful of disability. Such are the consequences of the state prosecutor's decision that protecting the dying and infirm from assisted suicide is no longer in the public interest.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and consults for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.