bbc.co.uk
Home
Explore the BBC
You and Yours - Transcript
BBC Radio 4
Print This Page
TX: 25.03.04 – SWISS AUTHORITIES CLAMP DOWN ON “SUICIDE TOURISTS”

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


WAITE
The authorities in Switzerland are planning a crackdown on so-called suicide tourists - terminally ill people who travel from all over the world to make use of the country's voluntary euthanasia clinics, like the one run by Dignitas in Zurich. Last year alone more than a hundred foreign nationals, including five Britons, were helped to kill themselves at the Zurich centre and hundreds more Britons have signed up for Dignitas's services. Now though, under a new law expected to be passed soon, foreigners will need to have lived in Switzerland for at least six months before they're eligible for assisted suicide, that will allow checks to be made by Swiss officials that would be patients at such clinics are suffering from incurable illnesses. One British couple, neither of whom are believed to have had a terminal disease, died together at the Dignitas clinic last year.

Well Jacob Greber is the Zurich correspondent for Swiss International Radio and he joins us. Jacob, is this just about the system being abused or are the Swiss also getting a bit worried about their image as the euthanasia capital?

GREBER
You've hit it - you've hit it on the head, it's two fold. I mean on the one hand there's this attention being drawn to Switzerland as a result of this massive increase in - for want of a better word - suicide tourism, it's certainly an image that runs against that traditional image of Switzerland as a place you visit as a tourist to enjoy the mountains and the lakes and the forests. On a second level people are worried that the law as it stands now isn't enough, they want to tighten the training, the way staff are organised and at the heart of that is a concern about the cost of these cases. Something like £30,000 are spent by police investigating magistrates on the checks for each individual case, not to mention the disposal of the body, in some cases have even been double that.

WAITE
Would it take a change in the law to shut Dignitas and the other clinics down completely?

GREBER
A change in the law would have to be at a federal level in Switzerland. Part of the reason for that is Switzerland has 26 cantons, which for the benefit of your readers, they have roughly the same ability to make laws as a state does in the United States. Dignitas is at the moment using the criminal law that allows assistance to anybody who can make a decision for themselves about taking this route. Andreas Brunner, he's the prosecutor in Zurich, he wants to change the Zurich law, looking - as I said - who runs these clinics, how the decisions are made and obviously the concern that people don't just fly in, so they'll be a requirement that people are domiciled in Switzerland.

WAITE
And Dignitas - we weren't able to talk to them directly - but what reaction Jacob have you heard from the company?

GREBER
The organisation is campaigning strongly against that proposed change. They argue that it goes against human rights, European human rights laws, because it obviously limits a person's free choice to die. The organisation itself I suspect, though I believe it's run by people who truly believe this is a person's right, I don't think it's an organisation that makes money, when you consider that people come to Zurich to end their lives, it's often in an ordinary part of Zurich, in a flat they don't know, I'm sure if people had the choice they'd much prefer to do it at home surrounded by the people they know and love.

WAITE
Okay, there we'll leave it from you, Swiss International Radio's Jacob Greber thank you very much indeed. As I say 500 Britons are currently registered with Dignitas and a bill to legalise euthanasia in this country is currently being reviewed by the House of Lords. So how do supporters of euthanasia view what looks like happening in Switzerland? I'm joined now by Lesley Close, whose brother John travelled to Switzerland and took his life at the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich in May last year. What was John's situation Lesley, why did he want to use Dignitas?

CLOSE
John had motor neurone disease and he'd got to the stage where he couldn't speak, swallow, stand or do virtually anything for himself. And he felt - he wasn't in tremendous pain, it was dignity that he was lacking at the end of his life and there is simply no palliative care for loss of dignity. He wanted to die with dignity at a time of his choosing and that - the service that Dignitas offered to him was his only choice, there was no way that he could have been helped to die in the UK.

WAITE
You and his other sister were holding his hand when he died, what was the service like?

CLOSE
Wonderful - compassionate, humane, so sympathetic - I can't praise Dignitas enough. So checks and balances John went through before he went to Zurich were very rigorous and on the day there were more rigorous checks. And some people have talked about the indecent haste of travelling to Zurich in the morning and dying in the afternoon but basically John wanted to be able to die at home with dignity and the next best thing was to sleep in his own bed for his last night.

WAITE
How might John have felt do you think if he'd been aware of these new rules or the prospect of them - that he would have to have been a resident in Switzerland for six months? Could he - could the family - have afforded that, would he have the strength?

CLOSE
Absolutely no way. If this only door of hope that is currently open by Dignitas was slammed shut by Andreas Brunner after John had found out about Dignitas he would have certainly had to take his own life. He would have tried to take his own life, he may well have failed, it's a lonely and dangerous procedure but he simply didn't want to get to the stage where he couldn't move at all.

WAITE
Well let me turn now to Rachael Hurst, who's a director of the disability and human rights organisation Disability Awareness in Action. Rachael you object to this whole business, don't you, of assisted suicide.

HURST
I think we have to understand that we absolutely are clear about the terrible suffering and indignity that is happening to people at the end of their lives in the UK today. There's no question about it. But the answer is not to provide a system of assisting suicide or voluntary euthanasia, it is to try and relieve the symptoms. And I don't mean pain because in the case of Mr Close he didn't have pain, but to give him support to make the most of those days even when he couldn't speak, when he couldn't move and swallowing is very difficult, there are many of us who are in that position and have been in that position and we know that actually if you're not frightened and if you feel that it's part of your history, that you have to go through this, and that you have got people supporting you in doing that it can be a good journey, not a bad journey.

WAITE
You'll forgive me for telling listeners, you are in a wheelchair, you're a wheelchair user, you say that the condition you have is part of you - is that your viewpoint?

HURST
Yes my - absolutely, it's part of my experience and okay it gives me a lot of negative things but it gives me a lot of enormously positive things.

WAITE
Lesley Close.

CLOSE
With respect there's a great deal of difference between the situation of somebody who is disabled and somebody who's terminally ill. Lord Joffe's bill, which is going through the House of Lords at the moment, only applies to those people who are terminally ill and have less than six months to live. Those who are disabled and have a long life expectancy have nothing to fear from that legislation. Where somebody in my brother's situation, whose life is going to end in a matter of a few weeks, he lost a few weeks life by having to travel to Zurich to die, but he was going to die very, very soon. And just to be able to relieve the suffering, whether it's mental or physical, in the last few weeks of somebody's life …

HURST
But - look I don't want - I think we'll try not to personalise this - what I want to look at is what happens - it may be okay in one case but then a lot of other cases come in …

WAITE
So this is the thin end of the wedge …

HURST
It's the thin end of the wedge, it's the beginning of the slippery slope and also if you have - as we've discovered in Holland where voluntary euthanasia's been legal for a very long time there are a lot of people are being, as it were, euthanased who did not want it, who did not - were not able to make a decision about what they wanted to do. What we really need to do is look at the support mechanisms so that people don't want to commit suicide, who want to go through … As a doctor in Holland said - We don't have palliative care in Holland, we have euthanasia - and I think this is not a helpful situation.

CLOSE
But Lord Joffe's bill has several safeguards built into it, one of which is that two separate physicians should look at the case, a psychiatrist should be involved and most importantly of all a palliative care specialist should be called in to check out that every single thing that can be done for a person is being done. And it would be my fervent hope that a great many people who apply for assisted suicide actually stopped when they got to the palliative care specialist because something was found that would make a difference to their lives and extend it.

WAITE
And Lord Joffe's Bill Rachael incorporates, doesn't it, stringent safeguards - won't those be secure enough?

HURST
The trouble is that there aren't that many palliative care people and for many of us - I mean I was given a death sentence years and years ago and could die at any moment but I refuse to - when we go into hospital people like me are actually - feel terrified because the doctors don't bother to treat us because they think our lives are not worth living.

WAITE
And isn't that a fair point …

HURST
It's an awful quality of life for some …

WAITE
A fair point Lesley Close, I mean if this becomes the norm and it is brought into lawfulness in this country people who do have a degenerative condition might feel almost pressurised to take the assisted suicide route.

CLOSE
I can quite see why people think that but there's a very important document - a living will - which you can make, which not only sets out what you don't want to happen but it also sets out what you do want to happen - if you want to be kept alive and it says so in your living will then every effort has to be made to do that. It seems clear to me that a slippery slope has to be built on the backs of untrustworthy doctors and I don't think we can damn the whole medical profession to say that they're all going to try to persuade us to end our lives.

WAITE
What surprised me in this research, just finally to you Rachael, is 500 people are already on the list for Dignitas, there are an awful lot of people who want to do this.

HURST
Yes I'm not surprised because I do think that we are bombarded with pictures of how undignified it is to die in the UK today. I mean we've all of us had members of our families dying of cancer in screaming agony and it doesn't help but I want us to look at the right solution not what I think is a solution that will lead to even worse.

WAITE
There we'll have to leave it. Rachael Hurst and Lesley Close thank you both very much.


Back to the You and Yours homepage

The BBC is not responsible for external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy