[Right_to_die] Plea for law reform in Britain on assisted suicide
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org.opn.lists.right-to-die at lists.opn.org
Tue May 8 09:37:29 PDT 2007
The Independent newspaper in London carried this commentary:
The right to choose death
By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor
08 May 2007
The number of terminally ill people travelling from Britain to end their
lives in a Swiss assisted suicide clinic has doubled in the past year.
In protest at what they see as Britain's outdated euthanasia laws,
patients from the UK are flocking to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich where
they are promised a dignified death.
Latest figures show 34 people have made the journey since January 2006
compared with an average of 14 a year between January 2003 and January
2006. In all, 76 Britons have been helped to take their own lives by
drinking a mixture of barbiturates prepared by doctors at the clinic.
The trend will give added impetus to the campaign to change the law in
Britain to give terminally ill patients the right to choose how and when
they end their lives. Surveys show four out of five people in the UK
would support a form of assisted suicide similar to that offered at the
Dignitas clinic, but three attempts to change the law since 2003 have
Dignitas was set up in 1998 by Ludwig Minelli, a Swiss human rights
lawyer, to help people "live and die with dignity". The first known
British patient to visit the clinic was Reginald Crew, a 74-year-old
former car worker from Liverpool with motor neurone disease, who ended
his life there in January in 2003. One unnamed Briton had gone there to
die earlier. In Britain the penalty for assisting a suicide is up to 14
years in prison. Many relatives and friends who have travelled with
terminally ill patients to Zurich have lived in fear of prosecution
Rosie Brocklehurst, of Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary
Euthanasia Society, which campaigns for a change to the law in the UK,
said: "It is appalling that the current law in the UK means that
terminally ill British people who want to end their lives are being
forced to travel to a strange country to do so. Their lives are being
ended more prematurely than would otherwise be necessary because they
have to be able to travel."
Sheila Soul-Gray, a university administrator from east London, made the
journey with her family and ended her life at Dignitas last December.
Aged 53, she had terminal colon cancer and viewed the opportunity of
release from her suffering with "extraordinary relief", according to her
Mr Soul-Gray, a teacher, said: "I felt cross we had to make this
difficult journey, in public. Sheila would have preferred to die at home
in familiar surroundings with her things around her as we all would.
That would have been by far the best. It should be an absolute human right."
The acceleration in the numbers of people going to Switzerland was
revealed by Dignity in Dying, to mark the fifth anniversary this week
(11 May) of the death of Diane Pretty, who campaigned for the right to
euthanasia. She fought a two-year legal battle to win immunity from
prosecution for her husband, Brian, should he help her to commit suicide.
Mrs Pretty had motor neurone disease, a degenerative condition which
left her confined to a wheelchair and threatened to condemn her to a
painful and distressing death. The Director of Public Prosecutions
agreed that Mrs Pretty and her family were experiencing "terrible
suffering" but refused to grant her immunity. Mrs Pretty appealed but
lost her case before the Law Lords and, subsequently, in the European
Court of Human Rights. She died in a hospice near her home two weeks
after her case was thrown out. A spokeswoman for Dignity in Dying said
Brian Pretty had been upset by the way some Christian groups had claimed
she died a peaceful death. "The truth is that before she was heavily
sedated [at the end] Diane had anything but a peaceful last few days and
was in a great deal of pain," he said.
Surveys show that many people, especially those with religious
convictions, claim they do not fear death and would never end their own
lives prematurely. But doctors point out that death is a process, not an
event, and for those with terminal diseases it may involve a period of
pain and suffering which is hard to bear. Although palliative medicine
has advanced to the point where most (but not all) terminally ill
patients can be helped to die peacefully, some want to shorten the
process and die with dignity.
Terminally ill patients wishing to travel to Switzerland from the UK
must first become members of Dignitas and then supply detailed
paperwork, including medical records, to satisfy the doctors at the
clinic that there is no hope of recovery and their decision has been
taken freely and without coercion.
Once they arrive at the clinic - in an anonymous apartment block in a
Zurich suburb - they are given a private medical consultation in which
they can express any last-minute doubts - before the cocktail of
barbiturates is prepared.
The patient then drinks the cocktail, using a straw if they are too
disabled to raise the glass to their lips, so that the fatal dose of
drugs is self-administered. This distinguishes assisted suicide, which
is not a criminal offence in Switzerland as it is in Britain, from
euthanasia, where the fatal dose is administered by the doctor. Minutes
after drinking the cocktail the patient slips into a sleep followed
rapidly by coma and death.
The last attempt to change the law in Britain sought to legalise
assisted suicide for terminallyill patients with less than six months to
live. The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill sponsored by Lord
Joffe was defeated one year ago on May 12 2006. Lord Joffe said at the
time that he was committed to bringing the bill back.
Assisted death the Swiss way
Dignitas clinic hit the headlines soon after it was founded in the late
1990s. One of only a few Swiss assisted suicide organisations which
takes clients from abroad, the controversy surrounding it has not
stopped a steady stream of terminally ill patients choosing it as the
place where they wish to die.
Discreetly situated in a block of studio flats in a residential suburb
of Zurich, Dignitas takes advantage of Switzerland's liberal laws on
assisted suicide, which say that a person can only be prosecuted if they
are acting out of self-interest. Staff interpret this to mean that
anyone who assists suicide altruistically cannot be prosecuted. Its
specialist staff all work as volunteers to ensure there can be no
conflict of interest. Once patients become members - and before they
arrive for their final visit - staff carry out detailed discussions to
ascertain whether their declarations have been unduly influenced by
others. Once a decision to carry out the procedure has been made, the
patient travels to Zurich and is taken to one of the clinic's flats.
Staff then administer a lethal does of barbiturates.
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