Jacqueline Jencquel has been campaigning for the right to die for the past ten years.
She gained popularity as a lobbyist for the cause after a Swiss newspaper came across her blog “La vieillesse est une maladie incurable” (Old age is an incurable disease).
Jencquel is 76 years old, she’s not suffering from any serious illness, she’s not in a lot of pain. But if you ask her to choose between being old, or dying: “I prefer dying,” she says.
In August 2019, Jencquel spoke about her intention to have assisted suicide. In January 2020 she would travel to Switzerland, where the practice is legal since 1942, and she would end her life by self-administrating a lethal medication.
In January 2020, Jencquel backed out from her initial date and extended it an extra six months: “I want to see another spring”, she said to Euronews, “but it will happen before the summer starts, I don’t want to live through another heatwave.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she postponed again: “I will wait for the end of the year, I am having a new grandson in November.”
Jacqueline is campaigning for the terminally ill and those suffering unbearable pain, but also for those who are simply done living after a certain age. She believes there should be a concept for “old age rational suicide”, which would make sense for someone who has reached “a certain age” and has discussed the case with a counsellor.
“I am not in good health, I have osteoporosis, I’m very fragile, and I have a stomach issue. And I know it’s not going to get any better,” she says.
“What’s this taboo around death? I mean, we’re mortal, aren’t we? What is an option is the suffering before dying. And I don’t really see any purpose and meaning in my life anymore.”
Stopping the desire for death
Jencquel’s debate is premature, says Dr Vianney Mourman, a palliative care physician at Lariboisière Hospital in Paris.
He argues we should rather focus on stopping the desire for death, not on the legality of it.
“As a matter of priority, there is an imperative need to strengthen the place and means of palliative care in medical practice and society. This would ensure that the use of assisted dying is reserved for exceptions only,” he says.
According to Mourman, it is normal for people who are in extreme pain to ask for death, “but often, when they are relieved, the request for death disappears.”
Ironically, Jencquel is very lively, and loud Flamenco music sets the mood for our arrival into her elegant 7th arrondissement Parisian apartment. The flat is the old home of Colombia’s renowned artist Fernando Botero.
Jencquel is wealthy, and thinks that old age comes with three alternatives, all dependent on financial means: “If they [people] have money, they take somebody to look after them. If they don’t have money, they have the option of living with their children.”
Last option, she says, is a nursing home, “and there’s nothing more depressing than that.”
Jencquel argues she must decide before someone else does on her behalf, “because statistically, most people my age are not well anymore.”
In 2018, the number of healthy life years in the EU was estimated at 64.2 years for women and 63.7 for men, according to Eurostat.
What are the arguments against assisted death?
Critics say the practice devalues human life, notably those with a terminal illness; that it is incongruous with the physician’s role as a trusted healer; and that the limits are a slippery slope.
There is also the question of inaccurate prognosis which could lead to the death of a healthy person by mistake. And also the fact that sick patients’ judgement could be clouded by pain or fatigue.
“Many of the patients who no longer want to live, because of the suffering they endure, have not had any real access to the means to relieve it,” says Mourman.
It is of course not possible to relieve patients from all the pain, but much can be done with palliative care, he adds, “and in any case, instead of saying: “So you are suffering? Then we will help you to end your life.” We should say: “So you are suffering? What can we do to relieve you?”
“Everybody is free to do what they want, but from there to bring in state aid or at least its representatives in the act of suicide: that’s another story.”
To this, Jencquel responds: “yes, of course, I can throw myself out of the window. I can throw myself under a train. Do I want to make a train stop because I’ve thrown myself on the rails? Do I want to jump out of the window and offer the sight of my brains and my guts all spilling out?”
“It’s violent,” she insists, and “it’s a terrible burden on my children. It’s much easier if they know I’m going on my own terms at my moment when I want to.”
Mourman told Euronews he thinks Jencquel’s rhetoric is counterproductive for the cause.
“If she were very sick, and say “I suffer so much and nothing relieves me, by humanity, please help me kill myself. The speech wouldn’t be the same.”
He insists that only once you’ve given the way to alleviate the suffering without success you could “perhaps imagine that assisted suicide could be offered”. But for someone who is not sick and has a future, “we can’t, and we shouldn’t allow it: it’s breaking a taboo that puts society at risk,” he reiterates.