A distinguished Australian scientist named David Goodall has just arrived in Switzerland. The purpose of his trip? To die.
“The lauded ecologist and botanist is not suffering from a serious illness,” the BBC reported last week. Nonetheless, he “wishes to bring forward his death. Key to his decision, he says, has been his diminishing independence.”
Suicide is usually a private affair, but Goodall has chosen to go public with his intentions. Why? As a botanist of considerable expertise, he surely has access to the knowledge and substances that would allow him to die painlessly and undisturbed in Australia. Why fly to Switzerland (where assisted suicide is legal), accompanied by a troop of well-wishers and, so it seems, the media?
The answer seems to be that Goodall, who favors legalizing assisted suicide in Australia would like his death, and his preparations for it, to make a statement. But what statement is Professor Goodall really making?
To answer this question, we must ask: Why does he want to die? According to reports, Goodall began to lose his appetite for life when his university canceled his lab privileges owing to safety considerations. Professor Goodall had enjoyed the congenial atmosphere of his workplace, the company of his colleagues, and the familiar routine of the lab in which he had worked for many years. Now all that is gone. Confined to a small apartment, he misses his former home where he and his wife had enjoyed seclusion among nature. He laments the loss of control over his own life and resents being cared for by strangers.
All this is understandable. He is 104, and not everyone at that age can adjust, make new friends, reorganize circumstances, etc. And yet, Goodall still clings to one ambition: He wants his death, or – looking at it from another perspective – his life, to have meaning. In this desire, he is very much alive. In fact, what I hear behind all this fuss about dying in Switzerland is Goodall saying, most emphatically, “I want to live!”
So why, Professor Goodall, don’t you make a statement – not for death, but for life? It seems to me that God has blessed you with mental clarity, physical health, a pleasing appearance, and length of years. There is no question that loneliness is difficult, but you yourself have the ability to change that. You also have the ability to meditate on your experience, to leave
a memoir of what you have learned and what you still desire to learn, to inspire young students with the same passion for knowledge that once inspired you, and to inspire other elderly men and women on the verge of despair to cling to life with all the determination and courage that doing so requires.
I sincerely hope to hear from you in response.