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
    +7

    Comment number 187.

    I consider myself lucky that I have the choice of when to end my life because I am currently fit enough to be able to buy and swallow paracetamol or jump off a bridge.

    To make assisted suicide illegal, is to deny those such as Tony Nicklinson the freedom of when they want to end their life. Assisted suicide is not about wanting to get ride of anyone; it's about having freedom of choice.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 186.

    177.Adam - ".......Are the BBC now saying that the general assumption should be in favour of ......"


    They are saying no such thing, they are just airing the story as it's been in the news a lot lately & lots of people want to see the law changed - the Beeb news output is just that, news, they do not have an opinion.........

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 185.

    I live in NL.assisted suicide is here a fact
    A friend chose this recently.
    But you must be able to give your opinion.
    My own daughter who drowned and rescued had severe brain damage was in a persitive vegitative state and with continuous epilepsy, took 5 years to die in extreme distress, the only option was a do not resuscitate note on a file - ignored 3 times
    As parents we had not say.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 184.

    I can understand why the gov't are cautious about allowing relatives/hospices/doctors to assist people to die.

    But priority should be given to the wishes of dying people in pain with no hope of getting better.

    There must be ways of ensuring that people can die without the worry of suffering whilst ensuring changes to regulations are not taken advantage of.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 183.

    It's heartening to see that only a couple of religious zealots have demonstrated their ignorance by posting comments. The problem though is that this board is not representative of the lawmakers. As long as we still have religion in government, the voice of reason and the right of self-determination will continue to be vetoed in parliament. Church and state must be separated once and for all.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 182.

    While I am sympathetic towards assisted suicide/euthanasia, I do also have buts as well. such as those wanting to get their hands on the Will and the "wrong" decision being made. I think it would have to be checked thoroughly in several areas in a bespoke manner so that there is no unnecessary suffering, greed and other reasons occur/don't occur.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 181.

    142. Polly8122

    @138.Andy_Pandy1968

    Euthanasia is a political & financial issue. It's naive to ignore that.

    =

    Some people who are in pain, miserable & can't function are past palliative care. They want another choice. That's the point. That's todays discussion.

    Not drone attacks on 3rd world kids, funding of palliative care, or any other of half a dozen random thoughts you've come up with.

  • Comment number 180.

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

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 179.

    Anyone who thinks that palliative care gives everyone a fabulous quality of life is sadly mistaken. Look at the Lynn Gilderdale case, where she got her mother to kill her as she had extreme ME/CFS. Terminal ME is horrifying. Try to imagine being unable to move or speak, doubly incontinent, in horrific pain, unable to tolerate light, sound, movement, or touch. 250,000 people have ME in the UK.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 178.

    As a society we seem to be determined to wipe out choice. Sometimes that's necessary when a choice would harm society in general - the choice to shout "fire" in a crowded cinema, e.g. But deciding you want to kill yourself does absolutely no harm to society in general, and the state should make no laws prohibiting suicide, or in aiding or abetting it.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 177.

    175. Polly8122

    That's a very good point. I doubt I'll every be able to understand how somebody not wanting to receive euthanasia could be considered distasteful.

    Are the BBC now saying that the general assumption should be in favour of euthanasia for people with certain conditions and that those with contrasting views are an extremist minority who shouldn't be able to publicise their views?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 176.

    Shouldn't everybody over a certain age be allowed to terminate his earthly life rather than face the degradation, discomfort and distress of old age?
    Just think how much easier pension planning would be if one could decide at the time of retirement how much longer one wanted to live.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 175.

    A day or two after Tony Nicklinson lost his case there was an article on this site about a guy who had the same condition and did not want euthanasia. The story 'disappeared' as soon as news of Nicklinson's death emerged (on grounds of taste).

    Their are cases to be made for and against but legislation is a sledgehammer not a scalpel. It would have negative effects for all its good intentions.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 174.

    162. nmh

    What exactly do you consider to be inhumane, the fact that your sister wanted to be killed or that she was terminally ill and was given pain relief.

    That can spark two completely separate debates. A debate on this issue of pain relief is especially difficult because it is an aspect of medical ethics which is often overlooked.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 173.

    The best palliative care in the world won't change the fact that some people simply do not wish to continue living in whatever particular state of health they are in. It is arrogant in the extreme to assume that just because we can keep them alive and comfortable for years, that that should be what they want. Going out "on top" as SR put it? Great. Would that we could all hope for that!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 172.

    Many of those opposed to changing the law are using all sorts of spurious unproven fantasies to try & scare people into giving up what should be a basic human right - to decide when & how to live & die.
    No one is proposing forcible euthanasia; no one is proposing anything other than freedom for individual choice. In the same way no one should compel anyone to assist.

  • rate this
    -13

    Comment number 171.

    I sometimes question the benefit of issues such as euthanasia and abortion being raised by the media from time to time, as for most us our views on these issues are unchanging.

    I've always been opposed to assisted suicide and a few bleeding heart cases brought to my attention by the media every few years isn't going to change that.

  • rate this
    -60

    Comment number 170.

    Saw one couple going this route the husband was at the time still very able and lucid. He died and his forlorn wife said he could have waited a few more years as he was still reasonably healthy. The thought crossed my mind was how arrogant he was because he wanted to go out 'on top'. Little or no consideration for his family and like most cowards didn't have the guts to do it himself, very sad.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 169.

    These laws ruin families at the very core, by stripping them of their emotional well being, and here is the U.S. they Bankrupt them as the costs for watching a person die can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet the Government, who forces you to do this, provides no funding to extend lifeless living.

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 168.

    My father died in 2009. He clearly stated he wanted to be as sedated as possible, but spent his last days as a ball of pain and terror. His only words were "help me help me help me help me". The doctors would not sedate him adequately. It was an evil thing to watch him suffer when an increased dose of sedatives would have ended this (by this time he could not swallow so I could not give him this).

 

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