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Wednesday 29 Oct 2014

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The Report on Radio 4: founder of controversial right-to-die organisation tells of "marvellous possibility" of suicide

The founder of Dignitas, the controversial Swiss right-to-die organisation, has defended helping British psychiatric patients and couples who are effectively in suicide pacts to kill themselves.

In his first broadcast interview for five years, Ludwig Minelli told the BBC that suicide was a "marvellous possibility" and discussed the ways his organisation goes far beyond simply helping the terminally ill.  

He told Simon Cox, of BBC Radio 4's new current affairs strand The Report: "I have a totally different attitude to suicide. I say suicide is a marvellous marvellous possibility given to a human being.

"For 50 suicide attempts you have one suicide and the others are failing. But a failed suicide attempt is not nothing. In most cases you have severe problems afterwards with heavy costs on the NHS. Suicide is a very good possibility to escape a situation which you can't alter."   

More than 100 Britons – most of them terminally ill – are thought to have killed themselves at Dignitas.

But Dignitas has been criticised for helping Daniel James, aged 23, to commit suicide last year after he was paralysed while playing rugby. Dignitas has also courted controversy by helping couples – at least one of them British – to commit suicide together, even when one is less ill than the other.  

Mr Minelli said: "It is not a condition to have a terminal illness. Terminal illness is a British obsession, as well as the notion of clinic. We are not a clinic. As a human rights lawyer I am opposed to the idea of paternalism. We do not make decisions for other people."

And he revealed that he may try to clarify the legality of assisting the suicide of a healthy woman whose partner is terminally ill.

"There is a couple living in Canada, the husband is ill, his partner is not ill but she told us here in my living room that 'if my husband goes, I would go at the same time with him' and this will constitute some problem for us, especially for the Swiss doctor. We are now in a procedure which will probably go to the courts in order to clear this question."

Almost two weeks ago, former British Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt tabled an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill. Her amendment, which was not voted on, would have guaranteed protection from prosecution for relatives and friends who accompany people travelling abroad to commit suicide.

But this week, asked whether she was aware that people with mental illnesses were able to commit suicide at Dignitas without being seen by a psychiatrist in Switzerland, Ms Hewitt said: "I don't think that would be an adequate safeguard for somebody suffering from a psychiatric illness. That's why it would be much better to have a British law on this issue."   

Meanwhile, it could soon become more difficult for people to travel to Switzerland for assisted suicides. The Swiss authorities are reviewing their country's liberal assisted suicide law, which dates back to 1943.

Switzerland's National Ethics Commission has drawn up a long list of recommendations – including longer assessments and tougher appraisals of psychiatric patients wishing to kill themselves, and of couples in apparent suicide pacts.

The commission's President, Christoph Rehman Sutter, told the BBC: "Switzerland has no regulation. It has only one tiny paragraph in the penal code that says assisted suicide is a crime if it is done for self-seeking motives. Full stop. And that is all the law says. And we felt that this is just not enough."

The Report is broadcast at 8.00pm on Thursday 2 April 2009 on BBC Radio 4.

Notes to Editors


The Report is a brand new Radio 4 current affairs series, which will combine original insights into major news stories with topical investigations.

The Report will ask: "what really happened?" and aim to give the audience real understanding of the stories everyone is talking about; it will also deliver unexpected angles on subjects that are regularly in the news.

PH

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