In Switzerland the law allows people to be helped to end their lives as long as the patient is mentally fit to make that decision and the helper is not motivated by self-interest. Dignitas is one of the country’s four non-medical right-to-die organizations. But while it and Exit International both help foreign nationals, the other two only assist Swiss people.
Dignitas was founded in Zurich in 1988 by Ludwig Minelli, a magazine journalist turned lawyer. Minelli says that his group lets people exercise “the last human right: the ability to decide how and when somebody would like to end one’s own life.”
A hugely controversial figure, Minelli has previously provoked criticism for allowing people with mental disorders, not just those with terminal physical conditions, to end their lives at Dignitas. In April he said that he would like Dignitas to also be allowed to help healthy people die. He explained that he wanted to help a Canadian woman who was well to realize her desire to die with her ill husband. He advocated almost no limitations on assisting people with their deaths, calling it “a marvelous possibility.”
The first Briton to die at Dignitas, an unnamed man from Cambridge who had throat cancer, did so in late 2002. Ex-docker Reg Crew, who had motor neurone disease, became the first Briton to be named as using Dignitas when he went there in January 2003, accompanied by his wife Win and a British TV news crew.
“I’d never say I was tired of life, but I’m tired of the life I’m in and I know I am never going to be cured,” 74-year-old Crew said.
People who go to Dignitas see death as a release and are frustrated that assisting a suicide is illegal in Britain. Anne Turner, a retired family planning expert who had the incurable brain disease supranuclear palsy, died at Dignitas in January 2006. She had seen her husband and brother endure lingering deaths from similar conditions. “Doctors should be able to help people to die. I always quote the fact that I had a cat and I had him put down because he was riddled with cancer, but we cannot do that with humans,” Turner said.
In all 115 Britons have ended their lives at Dignitas so far. As the right to die has become a key moral and medical issue, so the numbers of Britons using Dignitas has grown: from one in 2002 to 15 in 2003 and 26 in 2006. However, Dignitas currently has 786 British members who they will want its help.
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