Blog Post

British Conductor Commits Suicide with Ailing Wife

by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer

One of Britain’s most distinguished orchestra conductors flew to Switzerland with his terminally ill wife last week to join her in ending their lives together in an assisted-suicide clinic.

The New York Times is reporting that Sir Edward Downes, 85 and his wife Joan, 74, friends of the couple told the British media that although Sir Edward was not sick, he wanted to die along with his wife who was in the final stages of cancer.

The couple apparently traveled along with their children to the clinic of the Swiss-based assisted-suicide group, Dignitas, which arranged the suicides via a lethal dose of barbiturates. On Friday, the children said they sat weeping as they watched their parents drink “a small quantity of clear liquid” before lying down on adjacent beds, holding holds.

“Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in an interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.” He added, “It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it.”

Sir Edward, who was healthy although described by his family as “almost blind and increasingly deaf,” was principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra from 1980 to 1991. He was also a conductor of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, where he led 950 performances over more than 50 years.

His wife, Lady Joan Downes, was a former ballet dancer, choreographer and television producer who devoted her later years to working as her husband’s assistant.

“After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems,” the Downes children said in their statement.

Scotland Yard is looking into the deaths. Although attempting suicide in England has not been a criminal offense since 1961, assisting others to kill themselves is considered a crime.

However, the family is cooperating and is unapologetic about the deaths of their parents.

“Even if they arrest us and send us to prison, it would have made no difference because it is what our parents wanted,” he said.

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1. What does the Catechism teach about the use of assisted suicide to end a life? (See Nos. 2276-2279 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, available here:  )

2. What is Church teaching concerning suicide? (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church Nos. 2280-2283 available here: )

3. Why does our Church consider assisted suicide to be murder? (See No. 66 in the Gospel of Life, available here:

4. Numerous document sand other writings on this subject are available at: