Wesley J. Smith has written an interesting article about assisted suicide at The Weekly Standard called “Abandoning the Most Vulnerable.” The article is about the true story of Myrna Lebov who committed suicide at the age of 52 in her Manhattan apartment with the aid of her husband George Delury. According to Smith, Lebov had been suffering with progressive multiple sclerosis. The fallout:
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.
However, the story is more sordid than Delury’s public persona revealed. It turns out that he kept a diary, in which he explained what a burden Lebov was to him, and how he encouraged her to die only to free himself from the responsibility of caring for her. Excerpts:
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…
Smith explains that “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.
Smith explains how Delury planned on helping her with her suicide:
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.
Obviously taking less than the prescribed amount of anti-depressant medication can cause depression in itself. Saving the surplus for an overdose doesn’t seem like the proper solution. As to Lebov’s mental state, Smith explains:
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.”
On July 4th Lebov swallowed Delury’s prepared mixture of anti-depressants and died. But there’s more to the story yet:
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.)
Smith explains the state of affairs concerning assisted suicide in Great Britain:
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.
When the person who supposedly commits suicide does so privately, without any physician’s supervision and in the company of only a close friend or relative, they can’t exactly speak for themselves as to whether they were murdered or committed suicide. They’re dead. Short of any honest diary implicating someone in the event of a murder, it appears to end up, in the last resort, as one person’s word against another person’s silence; as if the scrutiny applied to determining assisted suicide or murder relies on the honor system. And one cannot, in most cases, tell clearly another person’s motivations. Someone’s motivation might be compassion, and supposing it is, there is the danger of having too much compassion; like the mother who obsesses over her daughter’s good health to the point that she keeps her indoors under constant care until she really does develop an illness. Compassion, like many other virtues, can be perverted by excess, and become harmful. It is a touchy subject, to be sure, and should be approached with the gravity that it warrants. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.