British couple end their lives at suicide clinic

Is double euthanasia the ultimate expression of mutual devotion?

Conductor Sir Edward Downes, Marie Claire News
Conductor Sir Edward Downes, Marie Claire News
(Image credit: Rex Features)

Is double euthanasia the ultimate expression of mutual devotion?

The double suicide of the renowned British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Lady Joan, in a Swiss clinic has led to fresh calls for the legalisation of assisted dying in the UK and demands for tighter safeguards.

Like other Britons in failing health who choose to depart through the modernist portico leading to the Dignitas organisation in a Zurich apartment, their deaths last Friday triggered a police inquiry.

A couple choosing to die together may appear to be the ultimate expression of mutual devotion, but double euthanasia sometimes raises awkward questions.

In February this year, Peter Duff, 80, and his wife Penelope, 70, who had both been suffering from cancer, set out for the Dignitas clinic. They had told friends they were leaving their £2m house in Bath in order to move to a second home in Dorset.

They died together after being helped in their assisted suicide pact. A statement from their daughter, Helena Conibear, explained: ‘Peter and Penny Duff passed away peacefully together in Zurich after a long battle against their terminal cancer.

‘Penny had fought a rare cancer since 1992 and Peter's colon cancer had spread to his liver. Their decision in no way reflected on the wonderful and humbling care they have received from their consultant, doctors and nurses, for which the family, and they, were so appreciative.’

Their predicament of a carer who then became too ill to look after a beloved partner appears to mirror the situation of Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan.

Another British couple who chose to end their lives in Switzerland were Robert and Jennifer Stokes from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. They died, reportedly in each others' arms, in March 2003 after swallowing lethal doses of barbiturates. Neither was terminally ill but both had endured chronic illnesses.

Robert Stokes was 59 and suffered from depression as well as frequent epileptic fits. His 53-year-old wife Jennifer had diabetes and experienced severe back pains following a car crash.

The couple's family knew nothing about their decision in advance. Their son, David, subsequently told the media that ‘the only terminal illness they had was in their heads’.

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