David Nightingale: The Right To Die

May 27, 2018

We don’t generally like to look at the end of life. Once, long ago, when a young mathematician friend was dying of leukemia, and a bone marrow match had not been found, I was invited to visit him and his small children at home – and I was unable to accept that this was it. As I left I said cheerily, “OK, see you next week”. To my shame, I had been in denial.

This month, a different kind of final exit was made by Dr. David Goodall, a 104-year old Australian ecologist. Goodall had obtained a Botany degree from London’s Imperial College in 1935, and was, later, the author of over a hundred science papers. He was Editor-in-Chief of the 30-volume Ecosystems of the World series of books, and had spent much of his life at the University of Melbourne.

Since Australia was not sympathetic to physician-assisted suicide he had flown, in May 2018, from his home in Perth to Switzerland. Although not in pain, he said he was ready to die. He’d had a good life, he said – but without mobility, and with hearing and eyesight mostly gone, he said his life had become increasingly difficult to live. He was ready to go. According to the NYTimes [ref.1] he had consulted with two doctors, as required, in Switzerland (one a psychiatrist), and was visited by the Swiss police as a formality. Answering reporters’ questions he said he didn’t believe in an afterlife, and he asked that his body be donated to medicine, or that his ashes be sprinkled locally. Did he want to eat anything in particular for his last meal? He didn’t know. Any special music? If he had to, he said it would be the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

“I have said my piece to my family. I send them my love, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity of seeing most of them for the past week.” There is a beautiful photo of an adult grandson kneeling before his wheelchair and saying goodbye.

His tickets to Switzerland for himself and a helper had been funded from the website “Go Fund Me”, which had accumulated $20,000 Australian dollars from nearly 400 donors.

There have been very many cases and I mention only one other – Brittany Maynard, 29 – who had graduated from Berkeley and had taught in orphanages in Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia [ref.2]. With aggressive brain cancer she and her husband ultimately decided in 2014 to travel to Oregon for assistance. On her final Facebook post she wrote:

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity … in the face of this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more.”

There are people, of course, who don’t sympathize with right-to-die views, and the pros and cons have been debated everywhere for many years and in many countries.

Currently, Netherlands, Belgium, and Japan have joined with Switzerland; England and Australia have not. Although California’s new Right to Die law is presently stymied by a judge, states that already have such laws include Washington State, Vermont, Montana, Colorado and of course Oregon.

Finally, as of January 2019, Hawaii will become the latest to allow the dignified ending of one’s life with proper medical assistance.

David Nightingale is Professor of Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is A Kitchen Course in Electricity and Magnetism, published by Springer, New York.

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