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 407.

    It already thinks that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    If the Government thinks it has the right to tell you how to die, it will probably assume it has the right to tell you how to live as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    We did not ask to be born, but we should have the right to decide when we die. This should be a basic human right. Where does it say in the manual that we have to grow old and suffer and lingering worthless death. No, when my time comes to decide, I know where I will be heading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    Yes, alright it would save a bit of money. But that's not the main motive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    To those on HYS who have faith, have you not forgotten that all faiths requires you to show compassion & love for those around you. Part of that compassion is letting go. A loving God will not turn away from someone just because they chose the time to end their life. Work to ensure the vulnerable are protected by all means but don't deny the right to chose to everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    we are still in the dark ages whether we like it or not, parliament are still of the mindset we are their property and that they need to take control of our lives.

    One day mankind will look back at these times in the same way we look back on slavery and prohibition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.


  • rate this

    Comment number 400.


    And stop shouting, your point isn't any better because it's capitalised!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    If you have a right to your life, then surely you have a right to end it in a manner of your choosing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    NHS would love this. Why treat or cure cancer and other diseases when you can just murder someone who has given up?


  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    What is morally wrong here is that we don't have the choice. Assisted suicide is not everyone's choice but it should be an option.

    To insist on keeping people alive simply because we 'have the technology' is equally morally wrong. When pet's become too ill we consider it humane to have them 'put down' but somehow we can't apply the same consideration to ourselves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    It's not about murder to save money. It's about allowing people a way out of pain and suffering from which they otherwise wouldn't escape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    371. FrankVine
    It is not the establishment that brands the seventh age as undignified, but truly society. We fail to provide quality end of life care, relying on poorly paid caring staff & overworked skilled nurses. We no longer have families living near with non-working female members to help in caring. Modern medicine compounds this by prolonging the process.

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    NHS would love this. Why treat or cure cancer and other diseases when you can just murder someone who has given up?

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    @170 Didn't have the guts to do it himself?

    What a rotten low life you are. Would you choose to hang yourself when a painless medical option were available. You cannot comment on the emotions of another person when they are terminally ill.

    Each of us has the right to choose the time, place and method. We are just prevented by religious bigots and their influence on politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    What does that have to do with euthanasia?
    I love the way someone can proclaim against suicide without existing.

    Everyone, please. Stop using the religious argument. Not everyone is religious, so why should the holier than thou nuts stop everyone else? What is sacred about an existence with constant pain and suffering, with no means of ending it?
    Why is that drivel an editors pick?

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    If you are terminally I'll and are on constant pain management medication, like morphine then I think it shoud be allowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    I don't think Bush & Blair were alive for the particular crusades I was talking about.
    "Who created the planes?" - Science, but that's like blaming a car maker for a hit and run that happened to happen in one of their cars.
    Anyway, the things you talk about are examples of science going too far. A bit like religious extremists, except they haven't contributed anything useful to the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.


    If you look at cancer survival rates between the UK & other western nations in terms of cancers dignosed through biopsy, ergo definite cancer, then our survival rates are as good as the rest......

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    356.Liberty_Rose - " asking is why UK's cancer survival rates are the worst in Europe....."

    They are not, the firgures are junk.

    Most Western nations use cancer screening tests that throw up masses of false positives - of course their survival rates look higher, because so many of the people treated for "cancer" never had it in the first place, so were never going to die......


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