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Saturday, October 18, 2008


Dignitas - Back in the News


The Right to Die * Daniel James

Live with dignity, die with dignity

In December 2006, I wrote about 67-year old British physician Anne Turner who was suffering from "progressive and incurable degenerative disease called supranuclear palsy" (BBC), and decided to end her life with assistance from Dignitas.

On September 12, 2008, 23-year old Daniel James of Worcester, UK, died at Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. British authorities are investigating this case and Daniel's parents said: "...................................that their son had tried 'several' times to kill himself before he 'gained his wish'.

  • Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics and a retired GP, said the public may react differently to the idea of a young man with paralysis killing himself to an older person with a terminal illness such as cancer but from an ethical point of view the cases are similar.
  • "Firstly it depends how you define a terminal condition," he said.
  • "This young man had a condition which would eventually lead to his death and the timing of his death would be related to the level of medical intervention he had to keep him alive."
  • He said that people do not usually expect people who are so young to want to kill themselves.
  • "At that age, one would want to know if he was depressed and if that was adequately assessed and treated because that would be a very high probability for a young person, after an accident, becoming aware of how limited their life is."
  • But Dr Nicholson added that from an ethical point of view he could not see much difference between the case of Daniel and an older person with a terminal, provided they were of "sound mind".


The group, based in Zurich, has caught the headlines as people with chronic diseases from around the world travel to Switzerland to ask for its help in committing suicide.

Dignitas was founded in 1998 by Swiss lawyer, Ludwig Minelli, who runs it as a non-profit organisation.

It takes advantage of Switzerland's liberal laws on assisted suicide, which suggest that a person can only be prosecuted if they are acting out of self-interest.

Legal basis

The law on suicide actually states:

"Whoever lures someone into suicide or provides assistance to commit suicide out of a self-interested motivation will, on completion of the suicide, be punished with up to five years' imprisonment".

Dignitas interprets this to mean that anyone who assists suicide altruistically cannot be punished.

Its specialist staff all work as volunteers to ensure there can be no conflict of interest.

Here in the United States, too, there is strong opposition to allowing terminally ill people the right to assisted suicide. The enlightened citizens of Oregon passed a legislation in 1997 that made this option legal. There are enough safeguards built into the law to prevent any abuse. In January, 2006, the Oregon law survived Bush administration's attempt to overturn it (Gonzalez vs. Oregon, 04-623) .

If you are not a resident of Oregon and wish to avoid being hooked up to a life support system in case of terminal illness, be sure to execute an Advance Directive. The form can be downloaded, free, from Caring Connections. AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) is another source. Execution of the form will not mean assistance in dying; what it will do is to prevent being kept alive by hi-tech medical aids, quality of life be damned.

Efforts to pass ballot measure based on the Oregon law were defeated, twice, in California. Proponents of the measure were not able to fight the blizzard of ads put up by the Catholic Church, the American Medical Association, orthodox Jews, and evangelical Christian organizations.

Photo credit: The Pew Forum
  • "Going forward, it is hard to know if and when another state or states will join Oregon. The only thing certain is that the debate over what is and is not an appropriate course of action when it comes to end-of-life decisions will continue for a long time to come." The Pew Forum

Recommended reading:

How We Die : Reflections on Life's Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland,MD, Vintage Paperback
On Death and Dying by Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross, The MacMillan Co.
Final Exit by Derek Humphrey, Dell Publishing
Euthanasia and the Right to Die edited by A.B. Dowling, Peter Owen, London

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