Right-to-die activist postpones death, continues campaign

Connexion caught up with right-to-die activist Jacqueline Jencquel, who we spoke to in 2018 and January 2020, just as a French erotic film came out focusing on the same subject. Liv Rowland spoke to her about her new book and to the director and star of the film.

1 August 2020
In conversation with French right-to-die activist, Jacqueline Jencquel.In conversation with French right-to-die activist, Jacqueline Jencquel.
By Liv Rowland

Jacqueline Jencquel set a date to die by injection in Swit­zerland in January this year to avoid the ill health and disabilities of what she calls the “winter of life”, from the age of 75. She was in relatively good health when she made the decision. Now 76, she suffers several health problems, though none that are severely debilitating. When we last spoke to her, Ms Jencquel, who lives between Paris and Switzerland, had postponed the date to this summer, coinciding with the publication of her candid autobiography, Terminer en beauté (To finish beautifully).

When we spoke last, you thought this summer would be the date. What has changed?

I had my date – July 20. Then my son announced they are expecting a baby in November, and it didn’t seem a nice thing to do. If I were desperately ill, it would be different, but it’s all about my rational thought that one should be able to decide. I campaign for choice. My own story isn’t important, though the media has taken an interest. But it’s a subject nobody really thinks about.

In that case, why have you published a book about your life?

I was going to write a book with another publisher but they wanted it to be ghostwritten, and I didn’t like the idea. Then, after my story created a buzz in 2018, Editions Favre in Lau­sanne said I could write whatever I like. It was a pleasure to write. But they said it won’t interest people if I only write about the right to die – readers would like to find out about my life. So I decided to be as sincere as possible, which is hard to do without hurting others. I kept wondering, shall I mention this or not?

It was a battle, and a dialogue with myself. The process forced me to reflect about my outlook on things, which is biased by having had a privileged life in later years. For example, I would say “oh **** the gilets jaunes” [who were rioting in her beloved Paris], but then I would think “how would I feel if I couldn’t make ends meet, perhaps I’d have been one myself?”.

In fact, I end my book with a question – what if I’ve got it all wrong? Covid made me question everything. All these old people who’ve been locked in their nursing homes – nobody asked their opinion if they wanted to be protected or not. They are going to die anyway. Why couldn’t they see their relatives? Maybe even if they were to die from Covid, they would have preferred it. Or maybe many preferred to stay alive. Some people ask me “why aren’t you dead yet?”, but it’s all about choice – if I want to prolong, I prolong.

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But in the book you say 2020 will be the year... is it possible you’ll be extending again?

I don’t think so, but I don’t know. Right now, I’m in the Swiss mountains, with children and grandchildren, and enjoying life. It’s nice and peaceful. But it can’t last forever. For one thing, it’s too expensive and our homes are all in different places [around the world].

"I end my book with a question – what if I’ve got it all wrong? Covid made me question everything".
"I end my book with a question – what if I’ve got it all wrong? Covid made me question everything".

Perhaps there will always be something that makes life worth living? The new grandchild, or in the book you mention teaching French to your granddaughter by Skype?

It’s nice but I feel I’m really living if I’m working at something important, like campaigning for the right to die. But in France it’s a dead end – no one is really interested. I’m talking to a German society to see if there’s anything I can do to help them. I’ve passed the age of love, and if I’m not having love affairs and not working, grandchildren are not enough to really fulfil me.

In the book, you say that lately you’ve often been accompanied by Marco, a younger Italian man. He’s a kind of escort but it’s not sexual?

He’s actually a fitness coach, but he’s also travelled with me. I’ve loved his company, but wouldn’t inflict myself on him sexually, it wouldn’t be right. When I was younger, I would have hated to have sex with an old guy. It gave spice to my life, but I can’t afford this lifestyle forever and am not with him at the moment. I said I’ll enjoy this for a little while, then that’s it. I should call it quits.

Are you still worried you could deteriorate quickly and not be able to make a free choice [which is legally required in Switzerland]?

Yes, I’m scared of it, because the older you get, the more chances there are. People my age die of all kinds of horrible things. And when you get the diagnosis, the animal part panics, the survival instinct is so strong you’re not rational, you’ll do anything to survive at all costs. But I don’t want to find myself like that. I want to stay rational and independent to the end. How long I can make that last, I don’t know.

You describe helping many people as an ADMD activist, including a younger person who you persuaded not to go through with going abroad to end her life.

Of course, it’s irreversible and I would never help someone who is just depres­sed. This woman was 50 and had lost everything, husband, children, lover, money... If I’d refused to help, she might have jumped into a lake. She was an artist. I said wait six months and promise you’ll do an exhibition at the end of it. She did, and she’s alive and happy now. Over 80% of people I’ve talked to I’ve convinced to live, unless they were desperate with no hope of anything getting better.

If I met myself, I’d say no, see a shrink. But in my case I’ve been dealing with this for such a long time. My doctor backs me and knows it’s been thought through. She says I can choose the date, and she’ll neither talk me into postponing nor advancing it, as long as I’m lucid, because she can’t help if I lose my head. But I’m not setting a date for now because I’m waiting for the baby to be born. Then I’ll see what happens.

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Do you need to medically prove you are in unbearable suffering?

No, my doctor believes, like me, in old age rational suicide. In Swiss law, you must be an adult and lucid and totally aware of what you’re doing, and the person helping must not do it for selfish reasons. Some doctors and associations make their own rules on this because they’re worried about being shut down or shunned.

Many fundamentalists are opposed to the right to die. They claim it’s because it’s against God, but there are strong financial interests too. Pharma labs prefer people to do their che­mos until they die, and nursing homes make bags of money everywhere. Maybe if people are given a choice about going to a home, some would go and some would not. People say we shouldn’t de-dramatise death and that life is sacred. Why not? It’s not a tragedy when someone old dies. Yet we keep making bombs and know they will be thrown on people who are healthy and young. Some lives are more sacred than others, it seems.

"I look better than most because I’ve always worked out, so I’m muscular, but the skin’s not the same."
"I look better than most because I’ve always worked out, so I’m muscular, but the skin’s not the same."

We spoke to Brigitte La­haie about her film about a woman who wants to have a last passionate night before she chooses to die before 70. What do you think of that?

That’s really nice! Why not? I’m thinking of it too. I was thinking I’d love to get drunk and have… But at the same time, I’d like to say goodbye to the family. How do you combine it all? But I’ve not reached that point. Writing the book, I realised I’m still too much alive. You should reach a point where you’re ready to depart gracefully. But after all, maybe it won’t be in the same way as Brigitte Lahaie, because who would feel passionate about an old lady unless I paid them? If I don’t feel desired, I don’t want that.

I haven’t stopped thinking about sex. I get turned on by Marco when I see his fit body. It’s still there, but like an animal I’ve tamed, a wolf that doesn’t have teeth any more. A man’s smell, his voice… can turn me on, but I don’t want to show him my body any more.

People often say you look good for your age…

I look better than most because I’ve always worked out, so I’m muscular, but the skin’s not the same. You might ask why is beauty so important to me. It’s just been bred into me that I should love beauty. I can’t desire a man who’s not sexy, so why should a man desire me?

Did you choose the book’s title?

No. I wanted to call it La clé des champs – referring to freedom to choose, but the publisher insisted on it; he thought it was more commercial.

What do you hope it will achieve?

I hope it makes people reflect about this issue, that concerns everyone.

What is the ADMD?

Jacqueline Jencquel and Brigitte Lahaie are both activists with Association pour le Droit de Mourir dans la Dignité (ADMD), a French organisation calling for legalisation of euthanasia or assisted suicide. It says people should be able to make a free, informed decision to end their own life. French law only allows doctors to deeply sedate people who are already close to death, to ease suffering at the end of life. The ADMD is part of a global network of similar organisations, the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.

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