British Couple’s Assisted Suicide Reignites Debate

July 15, 2009 at 4:50 PM EDT
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Independent Television News reports on the decision by one of the world's most famous conductors and his wife to take their lives. Their deaths have reignited a debate in Europe over assisted suicide.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the finale of a most distinguished orchestral conductor. Stephanie West of Independent Television News reports on the assisted suicide of Sir Edward Downes and his terminally ill wife.

STEPHANIE WEST, Independent Television News: Loved by his musicians and revered by the opera world, Sir Edward Downes never sought the limelight. Instead, he kept a low profile and had the reputation of a stalwart master of the baton, a workhorse with a passion for Verdi.

By the time of his death, he conducted 25 of the Italian composer’s 28 operas in a career lasting more than half a century.

ANTONIO PAPPANO, music director, Royal Opera House: He would never give in until he got what he thought was the most important thing for the music at the moment. He loved the details. He loved the history of opera. He loved what was behind the notes. He loved the words.

And, together with his wife, they made quite an awesome couple, actually, because they were sort of made for each other. They were very strong, and practical, and full of life, and full of energy.

STEPHANIE WEST: Born in Birmingham in 1924, the composer met his future wife, a ballet dancer and choreographer, after he joined the Covent Garden Opera back in 1953.

Later, she became dedicated to her husband’s career, working as his personal assistant, as he continued to conduct until he turned 80, even though his eyesight had, as he described it, virtually collapsed when he was 71.

His wife was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, and the children today revealed, even though their father wasn’t terminally ill, after Joan was given just weeks to live, the couple decided they should both bow out.

SPOKESMAN: After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. Our father was 85 years old, almost blind, and increasingly deaf. They died peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing.

Swiss law allows euthanasia

STEPHANIE WEST: They traveled from their Greenwich home to the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich, where Swiss law allows assisted suicide, as long as the patient is of sound mind and the assister has nothing to gain.

Established by a human rights lawyer 10 years ago, more than 100 Britons have ended their days here, given a lethal barbiturate dose dissolved in water. Before they drink it, they must acknowledge they know they'll not wake up.

The death of the conductor and his wife in this way comes a week after the House of Lords rejected a bid to amend the justice bill to allow the terminally ill to travel to where assisted suicide is legal. Campaigners, though, remain adamant clear rules are needed.

SARAH WOOTTON, chief executive, Dignity in Dying: We're clear that our policy is calling for a change in the law to permit dying people, people who are terminally ill and mentally competent, the right to have an assisted death if they choose to.

I think their death actually demonstrates that we're on a slippery slope at the moment, we're descending down it, and there are no breaks, apart from who can have the finance to go abroad to Switzerland to have an assisted death.

STEPHANIE WEST: Sir Edward conducted the first-ever performance at the Sydney Opera House, but he was fervently private and rarely gave interviews. Ironically, the manner of his death has turned a spotlight on the man, as well as his music.

ANTONIO PAPPANO: I'm very, very sad, but at the same time, I feel what they've done has been a beautiful gesture of support to each other. I know I miss them, but I don't think either one of them could have lived without the other.

JIM LEHRER: The British police say they have now begun an investigation into the death of Sir Edward Downes and his wife.