Commentary

Love story? Elderly couple's suicides raise serious moral questions

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Sometimes a major milestone in morality can pass with almost no one apparently noticing, or at least few understanding what is taking place and the significance of the events. Evidently, one those moral milestones was passed on March 27, just a few days ago, and the events took place in a nursing home near Toronto, Canada.


As The Globe and Mail tells us, it was the story of a couple married almost 73 years, an elderly couple who defined their life as one long love story, and a couple who intended to see that love story all the way to the end that they would plan together, which was a mutual simultaneous physician-assisted suicide.

As The Global and Mail reports, the couple known as the Brickendens, are the first couple who spoke about their plans for their physician-assisted suicides publicly. As the reporter tells us: "They wanted to explain what it meant to them to die at a time and place of their choosing, as at least 2,149 Canadians and likely hundreds more have done since assisted dying became legal in this country."

The Brickendens, according to the paper, "are at the vanguard of patients and families who are creating new rituals around dying in Canada - the kind of rituals that are only possible when death comes at a previously appointed hour. But cases like theirs," says the paper, "also raise uncomfortable questions about whether the vague eligibility criteria in Canada's assisted dying law are sometimes being interpreted more broadly than the government intended."

Now, the paper goes on to say that one of the most controversial stipulations in the law is that a patient's natural death must be, in the words of the law, "reasonably foreseeable, something," said the paper, "that could plausibly be said of every nonagenarian. The law dictates other requirements including intolerable suffering and irreversible decline. But those concepts," acknowledges the paper, "can be elastic, too."


The reporter for The Globe and Mail is Kelly Grant, and she writes of meeting George and Shirley on March 22. "By then," she says, "the plans for their pre-death parties were already in full swing. Their conversations were full of gratitude, gentle teasing and gallows humor, much of it," said the reporter, "provided by their children, Pamela, age 71, Saxe, age 60, and Angela, age 54. The couple's other son named Dal, age 69, was on his way to Toronto from Vancouver. Others gathering for these "pre-death parties" included grandchildren and extended family. Some coming," we are told, "from as far away as Vietnam, Norway, Switzerland, and Scotland, all coming to bid the couple goodbye."


The couple, by the way, George and Shirley Brickenden, defined their planned deaths as simply flying away. They'd put it this way for a long time. They told their children that they did not want to linger if their health eventually failed. "We witnessed many years ago, someone we love very much, a family member, who lived for several years and turned from being a magnificent human being into someone you couldn't recognize, that lay in bed and made noises." Shirley said that that was not the future, nor the death that she and George would choose for themselves.

The Canadian parliament legalized physician-assisted suicide, it's often called there, physician-assisted death, and as a euphemism, you can understand why, that took place back in 2016. And as is almost always the case when this kind of court decision or this kind of legislation is adopted, we are told that adequate cautions and protections would be put in place. Now, according to the Canadian law, there should be no physician-assisted suicide unless the patient involved is suffering from a grievous and irremediable conditions. And furthermore, the Canadian law says that that patient must be looking at a death that is reasonably foreseeable. But when it comes to the Brickendens, and they are age 95 and 94, that wasn't so clear. It became clear, at least in the judgment of two physicians who gave their authorization in the case of Shirley first, but George a year older, appeared to be healthier and the doctors were not adequate in agreement.

It takes to doctors to approve to move forward with a simultaneous assisted suicide. But in the words of Shirley, even as their plans appeared to be frustrated, "then miraculously he started to go downhill." The reporter says that Shirley said that of George, laughing. Speaking of their friends, Shirley said, "Many of our friends have flown away already and the ones that are left are very precious. It's very, very hard not to tell them, but you have to make a rule. You're either going to tell quite a few people or you can't tell," now that speaking of those beyond their immediate family, their grandchildren and the relatives that they told. When the reporter asked, how does it feel to know you have only five days left on earth, Shirley said, "Well, I'm startled. How does it feel to you, darling?" She said to George. George said, "Good." That, according to the report, provoked another burst of laughter from his children. Shirley then said, "What I'm surprised at is there's no fear involved at all."

The reporter said that after her conversation with the Brickendens, she couldn't help feeling "slightly perplexed by their decision to die now." Why? Because as the reporter acknowledges, both George and Shirley appeared sharp, vibrant, and even elegant. He wore a dress shirt and a tie with a sweater knotted over his shoulders like a prep-school student. "Shirley," said the reporter, "wore a simple black turtleneck and lipstick." The reporter also noticed that Shirley's nails had been freshly manicured. The story turns only darker when later we are told that two nights before their deaths, their prearranged deaths, the Brickendens went out to dinner at their favorite Toronto-area restaurant known as Opus. Kelly Grant then writes, "The next night, they bid farewell to more than 20 members of their immediate family at a bon voyage dinner at their daughter, Pamela's apartment, but the evening of their deaths was more intimate, that according to three of their children.

Grant then writes, "Present were Pamela, Saxe and Angela, their spouses, the two doctors and Andrew Asbil, the Dean of Toronto's St. James Cathedral, who later told the reporter that he had supported the couple's wish for their funeral to be held at the Anglican church without hesitation. We are then told that the couple dressed in caftans, drank champagne and nibbled on a last supper of hors d'oeuvres of lobster, salmon and filet. But then, shortly before 7:00, Mrs. Brickenden turned to her husband and asked, "Are you ready?" "Ready when you are," he replied. The report then tells us they walked into their bedroom and lay down together, holding hands.

The two doctors, one for each patient inserted intravenous lines into their arms. Dean Asbil, that's the Anglican priest prayed while Mozart, Bach and Scottish folk songs wafted through the room. Their son, we are told, had assembled a playlist which was labeled "fly away music".

Earlier in the article before the couple experience their deaths, the reporter acknowledged that there are huge moral questions to be raised here. The article cites Trudo Lemmens, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Toronto, who said that even though he doesn't know if this is the case here, he is generally concerned about "the fragility associated with old age becoming a reason for people to legally end their lives with the help of a doctor." In an email to the newspaper, Dr. Lemmens said, "From a societal perspective, this would be problematic, both to Supreme Court of Canada decision and the legislation treat active life ending measures by physicians as an exceptional procedure, an exception to a still existing criminal law prohibition. "We should be very careful," he said, "not to normalize it as if it is the solution to all end of life planning, even when we may have sympathy for the idea that a couple prefers not to leave each other behind."

But before leaving this article for an even more extended analysis in The Globe and Mail and the question of physician assisted suicide, we need to observe that what we see here is a fundamental redefinition, not only of death, but of life, and of the meaning of human life and of human autonomy. What we have here, shockingly enough, is an elderly couple, and yes, they are old, 95 and 94, and yes, they have lived long together, almost 73 years of marriage, but they are planning life on exactly their own terms as if they gave themselves the gift of life and they will rid themselves of the gift of life simultaneously.

Furthermore, you will note that they are able physically, not only to gather with parties with their friends and in anticipation of their death, they are able to go out to their favorite restaurant and without question, they appear to be in full possession of their mental faculties. As a matter of fact, if they were not regarded as being absolutely mentally competent, they would not be recognized as having the authority to demand physician-assisted suicide.

This is one of the saddest stories I have seen in a very long time. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the day of their deaths on March 27 does mark a very significant milestone in our morality and in the sanctity and dignity of human life. And The Globe and Mail, even though it recognizes the huge moral questions involved, does treat this story as something of a very elegant and tasteful love story. A love story that ends in what we must recognize is just another form of suicide.

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Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

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