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Faith Goes to Switzerland

When should we allow a person to hasten her own death?

Faith Goes to Switzerland
Faith Sommerfield

What counts as a good reason to die? When does a person’s desire to die make sense and when does it not? When should we allow a person to hasten her own death? There is a lot of disagreement about questions like these. Some of us think that death is something no one should ever want for themselves—wouldn’t that be suicide?—and that we should hold on to life for as long as possible, even in the face of severe illness and suffering. Others think a person can reasonably want to die when it is the only feasible way to end severe suffering or to prevent severe suffering that is very likely.

Some think such questions are simply misplaced: anyone of sound mind should be able to choose when she dies, since it’s her life to live or not. But should we—may we—ever seek to die as a way of shaping the narrative of our life, choosing a time and a place that marks our lives as complete? Faith Sommerfield—who died by her own choosing at a Swiss end-of-life clinic—thought that we should. Her story cuts to the core of our ideas about the value of life and the conditions under which death looks reasonable, where wanting to die is understandable. It raises difficult questions about the authority we should have over our own lives and how they end, the importance of living a life in accordance with our plans for it, the considerations we make concerning others who are affected, and about what it is to die well.

Faith died by voluntary euthanasia at Pegasos, one of several Swiss clinics that provide euthanasia for nonresidents, on September 27th, 2022. She was 82 years old. Prior to her death, she had what most of us would regard as a good life—even, viewed objectively, an enviable one. She had children and grandchildren; she had friends; she lived in a spacious apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was highly educated—it’s said that she spoke French like a native Parisian—active in her community, and well-off. For her age, she was healthy and relatively active. Sure, she had some mostly minor aches and pains. She’d had a hip replacement in the past and also bilateral knee replacements. She wasn’t as steady on her feet or as active as she wanted to be, but she seemed to cope. At least on the surface, she seemed happy and fulfilled. Given the evident fullness of her life, it might not be immediately apparent why she would want to orchestrate her own death.

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