Assisted suicide: 10 years of dying at Dignitas

 
Dr Anne Turner died in 2006 at Dignitas, accompanied by her son Edward Dr Anne Turner, pictured with her son Edward, died at Dignitas in 2006

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Ten years ago a British man with terminal cancer travelled to Switzerland and drank a lethal solution of barbiturates to end his life, with his son and daughter by his side.

He was the first of more than 180 Britons to be assisted to die at Dignitas, a Swiss organisation founded in 1998 which helps people with terminal and incurable illnesses to end their own lives.

While euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in the UK, other countries, like Switzerland, do permit assisted suicide in specific circumstances - and Dignitas is the only Swiss facility to accept foreigners.

Start Quote

The first duty of the law is to protect its citizens”

End Quote Dr Peter Saunders Care Not Killing

As a result, Dignitas has seen an average of 18 British citizens coming through its door each year since 2002 and many have chosen to be very open about what compelled them to travel abroad to die.

Having control over the timing of their death and avoiding a painful, lingering end have been the over-riding wishes of people like Dr Anne Turner, Peter Smedley and Jackie Meacock as they made their final journey to Zurich.

For those who travelled with them, there was always the fear of prosecution but, to date, no-one who accompanied any of the 182 Britons has been prosecuted.

Motivations

In the decade since, the debate over the 'right to die' has been played out through the high-profile court cases of Diane Pretty, Debbie Purdy and recently Tony Nicklinson - all of whom wanted assistance to die.

Peter Williams

CASE STUDY: PETER WILLIAMS

Peter was a pilot, flying long and short haul, and he had a degree in engineering.

He was intelligent, focused and energetic, says his sister Lynne.

"That made it very difficult to accompany him to Dignitas but when someone you love has such a clear objective, you want to support him."

Peter was 63 when he died at Dignitas in July 2012. His wife Linda was with him too.

"He had progressive supranuclear palsy and had been unwell for three or four years," says Lynne.

"He knew he would have to stand indignities that he wasn't prepared to go through. His choice was to complete his life under his terms. A miserable demise was not for him.

"He researched everything about Dignitas and organised it all. He was worried that someone would try to stop him."

Peter wanted to still be mentally competent and able to swallow by the time he got to the clinic.

"That meant he died before he needed to. He wanted to be well enough to make the journey."

In February 2010, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued new guidelines to clarify who could face prosecution for assisting in another person's suicide.

He said a range of factors should be taken into account including the motivations of the person assisting and the victim's ability to reach a clear and informed decision about their suicide.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for a change in the law to allow assisted dying, said the new guidelines "were a watershed moment".

"At heart, people should not be prosecuted for compassionate assistance. We have to think about what is criminal and what is not."

Others, including disability campaigners, said the guidelines were dangerous and could lead to disabled people being pressured to end their lives.

But these guidelines did not change UK law in any way. The Suicide Act of 1961 still makes anyone who aids and abets the suicide of another person liable to imprisonment for a maximum of 14 years.

Choice on care

Healthcare professionals will still be prosecuted for offering assistance to patients who want to die, and doctors' bodies such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Association for Palliative Medicine want it that way.

A 2006 survey of members of The Royal College of Physicians found that more than 70% were against a change in the law on assisted dying.

The focus, they say, should be on improving care for those approaching the end of life. The government responded in 2008 by publishing an End of Life Care Strategy covering adults in England which aimed to provide people with more choice about where they would like to live and die.

But Wootton says the law is inflexible as it stands.

Ending life

"Parliament has turned a blind eye for 10 years as Britons travel abroad to die. In line with public opinion the law must change to allow people the choice of a doctor-assisted death at home and within upfront safeguards.

"Politicians have outsourced the problem to Switzerland."

LAW AROUND THE UK

  • In England and Wales it is an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt.
  • The law is almost identical in Northern Ireland.
  • In Scotland there is no specific law on assisted suicide, although in theory someone could be prosecuted under homicide legislation.

However, Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing, says out of all deaths in the UK each year the numbers travelling to Switzerland to die "are really a very small trickle".

"The British media give huge publicity to the cases which do occur and make it seem more prevalent than it is - but in fact the numbers are very small."

In the last four years, the yearly rate at which UK people travel to Dignitas has not increased - and that is important, he says.

"There will always be a small number of determined individuals who will regard their lives as not worth living. But do you change the law for that small number of people?

"The first duty of the law is to protect its citizens - and that may mean that some determined people may not get what they want."

Flagbearer

Some want to see a distinction made in law between mercy killing and murder so that people like Jane Nicklinson could have helped her husband Tony, who had locked-in syndrome, to die at home.

Sir Terry Pratchett pictured in 2011 Sir Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer's in 2008

Novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2008 and is a supporter of assisted death, has become a flagbearer for the crusade to change the law.

He took part in a BBC Two documentary film which followed the final days of a 71-year-old British man who travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to die.

Earlier this year, the Commission on Assisted Dying, an independent body set up with funding from Sir Terry Pratchett among others, looked in detail at the issue of assisted dying.

It concluded that any changes to the law would have to be balanced with giving people access to high quality end of life care and protecting the vulnerable in society. At the same time it said people should be provided with greater choice and control regarding how and when they die.

Next year a bill on assisted dying will be tabled in the House of Lords.

More debate

But is there any real likelihood the law could change?

Dr Saunders says Care Not Killing will continue to oppose a change to the law, alongside the medical profession and disability rights groups.

"The 1961 Suicide Act still fits a purpose. It continues to provide a strong deterrent. It gives discretion in hard cases too. It's clear and fair."

Looking ahead, Dignity in Dying predicts that a lot more countries will move to legalise assisted dying. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have introduced legislation to allow assisted dying. France and Spain are currently considering a reform of their laws.

The model Wootton prefers is one that has been in place in the US state of Oregon for 15 years, which permits doctor-assisted dying. It gives terminally ill, mentally competent people the option of an assisted death.

A decade on from the first British assisted suicide at the now well-known Swiss organisation on a featureless commercial estate outside Zurich, the law has not changed but the debate rages on.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 27.

    In this country we see things go wrong despite lots of rules and regulations to "make sure" it doesn't, if we legalise some kind of assisted suicide there is no reason to believe the process would be water tight, I can see the headlines now, "person wasn't of sound mind says third doctor" "person inherits money" it could become an out of control monster, with court cases. and heartache

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 26.

    @14.L_CM
    It struck me that these people basically just gave up on life.

    Unfortunately, because they have to make this journey to another country, supposedly unaided, those using Dignitas are left with no choice but to go earlier than they would wish, and would be able to if they could die in their own homes.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 25.

    Some people are more afraid of a lingering death at the hands of an already collapsing NHS that a quick death at their own hands

    If you know that you're toast it focuses what you can do about it

    Some people choose the Dignitas route

    In these cases the law is actually irrelevant

    A bunch of legal eagles get paid lots of money to prevaricate about irrelevancies for the living

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 24.

    "Civilised" ? After killing a million people in Iraq - are we Civilised ? Is there any progress ?

    We are good at killing. On the other side of the BBC is our PM talking about "Getting Tougher".

    It's just one approach to life - an approach of nastiness.

    Love is a distant memory.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 23.

    Until the law changes we have no right to call ourselves a civilised society....

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 22.

    a foetus does not become a baby until it's born

    Funny then, that pregnant women refer to their unborn child as a baby. Seems like we choose the word we use depending on whether or not the said child is wanted... very convenient.

    I think we should all stop obsessing over our 'rights' and think more about our responsibilities.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 21.

    There are many reasons why assisted death is a good thing. But here’s the thing – it’s a freight train and it’s headed this way. Nothing can stop it because it’s the civilized thing, and society tries to become more civilized over time. I just hope it arrives in the UK in my lifetime.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 20.

    I can't help but find us all slightly hypocritical and confused about this subject.

    If our pets become gravely ill, we have them put down as an act of decency and to prevent prolonged suffering. Yet our approach to human life often appears to be in stark contrast to this.

    How can ending life be morally right for some species but outlawed for another?

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 19.

    Well I agree with self-euthanasia and I believe it should be available in the UK. To me, it's not difficult, if you want to go, you shouldn't be stopped. Apply for it on three separate occasions, choose which package you want, make your appointment, get it done. Less moralising and more personal choice please.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 18.

    It's really archaic personally - Not to be allowed to decide how/when to di If we are in a sound mind and can decide, then we should be able to !
    We put our dogs,cats,horses etc., mercifully to sleep to end their pain and suffering - Why are we not allowed a similar respect and recognition !!

    We are told daily that Times are changing, so why is this law not changing also ?

  • rate this
    +24

    Comment number 17.

    I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of dying. If Britain allowed euthanasia and I could put a request in to be put to sleep when Life was not worth living I would happily do this.

  • rate this
    +34

    Comment number 16.

    I can understand the reluctance of many in the medical profession to become involved in assisting their patients to die. So how about creating a new class of 'End of Life' practioners with appropriate training, support and qualification who can counsel, ensure that there is no coercion and generally become an advocate for the patient up to the point of euthanasia.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 15.

    This is obviously a very difficult subject. Having said that, when my life ends should not be the decision of anyone else, and if I become terminally ill or in constant pain I should have the ability and the right to ask for the assistance of a loved one to end my life, if needed. Each case must be treated as separate and individual, the can be no 'one rule fits all' approach.

  • rate this
    -17

    Comment number 14.

    I've watched people who've gone through euthanasia on the web. Some look completely healthy but they've been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and they chose euthanasia as a "dignify way to go". But my feeling after watching these videos was that there's nothing "dignify" about what they did. It struck me that these people basically just gave up on life. I'm not judging, just my feeling.

  • rate this
    +43

    Comment number 13.

    We as a species need to deal with this, not just nation by nation but as a human rights issue as much as it is any other variety of issue and so should be discussed from within that framework.

    The fact I could go to another nation, renders impotent any argument within my own, that the status quo prevail - all I need is a passport and airfare; unfortunately I'm too poor to avail myself of dignity.

  • rate this
    +48

    Comment number 12.

    It is to Britains shame that people who wish to end their suffering have to leave their Country to receive support to die and to protect their loved ones from the criminal justice system. Please do not impose your superstitious beliefs, personal demons and self affirming fixations on me. If I am in constant pain or any other living nightmare condition, such as locked in syndrome, let me die

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 11.

    6.LadyEmsworth - "Surprising that we are allowed to kill babies with (almost) impunity..........."


    No we are not, murder is murder.

    If you are referring to abortion that the correct terminology, for good reason, is foetus - a foetus does not become a baby until it's born (a bit like they way a child does not become an adult until they are 18 etc).

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 10.

    In my opinion, I see no reason why assisted suicide or euthanasia should be forbidden in the UK. If people wish to die then surely we should respect their decision and help them through that?

    Having said that, however, giving proof that it was assisted suicide and not murder could pose a problem.

  • rate this
    +44

    Comment number 9.

    Not having a British Dignitas is no farce, it is a grievous lack. In the Netherlands my brother-in-law died a gentle death: assisted. The law requires ratificiation by two doctors. Research shows most deaths are brought forward only by a matter of hours when assisted - but are softer, more dignified deaths because the patient knows that all is within his/her control and has less fear. It's humane.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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