‘I have set a date to die'
People should be allowed to ‘opt out’ of the ‘tedious’ years of old age, according to a prominent French right-to-die activist, who claims to have set a date for her own death.
“Life is a right, not an obligation”, said Jacqueline Jencquel, 74. She caused a storm when she admitted in a video on the pop culture site Konbini that, despite suffering no terminal illness, she had decided to end her life at a Swiss clinic in January 2020.
She said “you have got to fix a date if you want to leave in the way you want”.
Ms Jencquel told Connexion her decision followed years of activism against French laws on the end of life. She is a former vice-president of Association pour le Droit de Mourir dans la Dignité (ADMD), which argues those with serious, incurable illness and constant pain should be allowed euthanasia (as in Belgium or the Netherlands) or assisted suicide (as in Switzerland).
Both are illegal in France, but people can write a ‘living will’ to say they do not want to be kept alive at all costs. A law that allows terminally ill patients to be put into a state of ‘deep and continuous sedation’ until they die was passed in early 2016.
Born in China to a French father and Russian mother, Ms Jencquel spent part of her childhood in France and part at an English boarding school. “My parents fled from China, then Indochina and then lived in dodgy Paris suburbs, which I hated. I left as soon as I had my Bac,” she said.
The twice-married activist has three sons and has been married to her second husband for 45 years. They lived for a long time in Venezuela. She said she loves her husband but their marriage is ‘unconventional’. He spends his time in Switzerland with his girlfriend while she lives mostly in Paris.
Ms Jencquel said she has “thought about death”, since her lycée days. “We used to study philosophy, and suicide was an essential philosophical question.
“I know Richard Dawkins and agree we’re programmed to reproduce but after that we must find some other meaning to our life.
“The universe doesn’t owe us an explanation for us being here. I battled with this once my children grew up and left.
“I got involved in the right to die 12 years ago when I picked up a book on euthanasia. I found the author and we decided to create a Venezuelan right-to-die movement. Later, at a world congress, I met the president of ADMD, who said I should campaign in Europe because I speak several languages.
“So I had my excuse to leave Venezuela, where I was depressed, living a comfortable life, with staff, but never leaving the house because there was a lot of insecurity.
“I was thinking ‘what’s the point of going on’, but for the last 10 years I’ve found my meaning for life in campaigning for death.”
However, she has reached a point where she is starting to “let go of things” and no longer has an official role at ADMD. She says the group is modest in its demands because in France “we don’t even have the right to choose when we are incurably ill”.
“Practically, things are difficult; the doctors are now allowed to give ‘deep and continuous sedation to death’, but only if the prognosis is fatal at very short term.”
Many people are ‘indignant’ about her decision to die, Ms Jencquel said, but she said no one is in perfect health at her age, although she prefers not to talk about her health issues, because ‘it’s not dignified’.
What “terrifies” her, in particular, is being unable to die in Switzerland, because they require people to take a lucid decision.
She said her memory is ‘unreliable’ and added that she does not want to end up like her father, who had Alzheimer’s.
She favours a choice for those with incurable serious illnesses, or over-75s, but says there should be checks to ensure a person chooses freely. In Switzerland, patients are filmed expressing their wishes. “If you’re not completely lucid and determined the police will arrest the doctor”.
Many are really just “asking for help” and need counselling instead, she said.
Euthanasia is unsuitable for someone who is just upset over a lost job or a break-up, however such people should be listened to, to avoid them trying to take their own lives – which she said often leaves people with disabilities from botched attempts.
Her decision developed over time and in discussion with loved ones. “It’s not spur-of-the-moment or a cry for help.”
Ms Jencquel said she never expected so much media interest in her story – it came after a journalist read her blog (blogs.letemps.ch/jacqueline-jencquel) – but decided to “battle for the cause as best I can”.
However, some inaccurate things have been said, such as she wants to “die beautiful” (“it’s ridiculous, I’m 74; I don’t think I’m beautiful”). Another claimed she thinks dependent elderly people in care homes should be euthanised.
However it is true (as was also reported) that she regrets her lack of sex life and being unattractive to younger men. “I still have a good life and enjoy it, but less. I’ve had all of it, children, husbands, lovers; what’s the point just prolonging it?”
She feels it is less upsetting for her relatives for her to opt to die now, rather than become a worry to them if she becomes physically or mentally incapable later on, especially as they live dispersed around the world.
She added: “Think of four seasons: spring till you are 25, summer till you are 50 and autumn till you are 75. Then comes winter. Some like it, others don’t. Why force anybody to freeze if they hate it? Living past 75 is fine for some people and tedious for others. I am just asking for a choice.”
Connexion approached the Conférence des Evêques de France for a comment but it said it would not be appropriate. The church has previously stated its opposition to euthanasia saying the “freedom to decide is illusory and locks up a person in the solitude of their decision”.