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.


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


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."


  • 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."


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

    Comment number 167.

    So long as the Suicide Act 1961 remains on the statute book, anyone who helps another person travel abroad to kill themselves should be prosecuted and face the full force of the law.

    And the law on suicide is there for a very good reason, to protect vulnerable people from those who's views on the value of human life do fit in in a civilized society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Sorry to see that the lowest rated comment includes the phrase "life is precious".

    Let's not lose sight of that essential fact, when we insist that it is NOT SACRED!

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I would support a change in the law to allow assisted suicide, if there is a "pre-mortal" investigation to eliminate any risk of someone's death being used for someone else's inheritance or insurance-related nefarious gain. Those that choose death must not have been coaxed into it by outside influence.

    If such a plan is discovered the procedure can then be legally blocked before the person dies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    157Audrey Atkinson

    A final Point re: the countries that allow assisted suicide:

    And it is difficult to find places to be the venue for these deaths - neighbours do not want to see a stream of people coming to a house and coffins leaving.
    It's simply done at your home - as you don't need to go somewhere special like Dignitas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    147. malfosse
    We can all see the logic in this, but the problem is as St Paul states "We are not our own property" We are created by God"

    So St.Paul, who was a rather strange character living a couple of 100 years after the supposed action, speaks for your god. Very odd.

    Your illusions are your problem. My life is mine, my family and my friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    My sister fought leukaemia vigorously until the final 3 days of her life.

    All she wanted was to die with her family around her and for the pain of the last 5 years to be over. Instead she had to suffer a morphine-induced haze from which she would rouse occasionally to whisper "kill me now".

    How we can consider this humane I have no idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    I just believe that whilst we have choices throughout life (mainly promoted by the Conservatives, using the word CHOICE), its at the end that we don't have all the options available.

    I would like to think the choice is there for me, at the end, as an option, should there be the small chance that I have such an illness.

    Give us the choices in life and the very last to die with dignity

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Perhaps a study of what happened in Germany when people pushed for euthanasia and assisted suicide, by the 'pro lobby' here might get a different reaction.

    The culture of death is exactly that. Most people understand facts. Those who don't worry many and place the vulnerable at risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    147. malfosse "We know there is Heaven and Hell after this mortal life, there is the last judgement. To take your own life is against the law of God and Man , you risk hell"

    Why would anyone want to go to a heaven ruled by a god who punishes compassion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    157Audrey Atkinson

    A final Point re: the countries that allow assisted suicide:

    where assisted suicide is permitted less financial support is given to palliative care - so more people suffer.
    No, it's less financial support is needed to keep alive those that don't wish to be - so fewer suffer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    A final Point re: the countries that allow assisted suicide:

    where assisted suicide is permitted less financial support is given to palliative care - so more people suffer. And it is difficult to find places to be the venue for these deaths - neighbours do not want to see a stream of people coming to a house and coffins leaving. Not a very edifying image for children is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    One or two points:
    a) the barbiturates do not always work and people have come back round - left in a far worse state than they were when they took the dose. This could leave hospital staff in a difficult situation.
    b) doctors have a vocation to help save life - indeed, they are often castigated for doing too much - to assist in a suicide would be contrary to all that motivates them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    In practical terms, the debate about assisted dying has been won. No one will ever be prosecuted for helping someone die with dignity. If they were, they would appeal and the various precedents would kick-in.

    Now, it's just a question of our institutional systems catching up. The church, law and medicine, all need to recalibrate their thinking. It's about allowing ordinary people to make choices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    1 Minute Ago
    Not everyone has religious beliefs.

    or delusions which I feel is a more appropriate term

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Not everyone has religious beliefs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Alison Davis, coordinator of 'No Less Human', recently interviewed by BBC, campaigns against euthanasia as someone who would be dead if it were legal, since she once wanted to kill herself:
    'I have spina bifida and hydrocephalus, emphysema, arthritis, lordosis and kyphoscoliosis - causing my spine to twist out of shape, and osteoporosis. When pain is at its worst I can't move or think or speak.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    147 malfosse

    What about those of us who feel sorry for people like you who believe in fairy tales. This is it and it is our right to end our life when and how we choose, with help if needed. Don't make everyone suffer because of your misguided adherence to magic. If you are very ill with no chance of recovery and don't wish to go on why are you made to?

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Be careful for what you wish for. Remember all the checks and balances promised for your personal details, now a joke, sold on to he who pays. The same promises made will be broken further down the road, by the next youthful batch of parliamentarians. We have an ever ageing population, scary times ahead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    What I resent in this debate is that some people imagine they have the right to decide how others should die. You don't! My life belongs to me and if I want to end it then it is none of your business. If you think it is wrong to end your life then don't do it yourself, but stop forcing everyone else to 'live' by your beliefs. We are all different. Accept it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Nurseynurse said:

    "fabulous Palliative care in the UK."

    Such as the cruel, sedated, food and fluid withdrawn, covert euthanasia of the Liverpool Pathway (LPC)?

    Prof. Patrick Pullicino states sick and elderly are routinely prematurely killed by the LCP to free up hospital beds. “Very likely many elderly patients who could live substantially longer are being killed by the LCP.”


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