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Dignitas, the Swiss organisation that helps people with terminal illnesses to end their lives, has had to begin offering its services in a former factory after being forced to leave the flat it was using in Zurich.
The owner of the block of flats asked Dignitas to leave by the end of September after opposition from residents and the media. The organisation, founded by the human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli, found another flat but was unable to use it after the local council took action.
Mr Minelli, 75, then offered the living room of his own home in Maur, a village 12 km from Zurich, but local officials stepped in and banned its use for assisted suicides. Dignitas, which blames its problems on a “not in my back yard” attitude, had to resort to hotel rooms, and one man decided he would prefer to die in his car.
After the organisation found the former bowling ball factory in the village of Schwerzenbach, 22 km from Zurich, the local council tried to ban assisted suicides there, but the administrative court for the canton of Zurich ruled that Dignitas could use it, pending a final court decision.
Mr Minelli, who runs Dignitas as a non-profit organisation, told a press briefing in London last weekend: “If you look at it from the outside it’s a commercial building, but inside the two rooms that we use are very cosy.” He was invited to London by the Glasgow based organisation Friends at the End, run by the retired family planning doctor Elizabeth Wilson, which advises British people who are considering a trip to Switzerland to use Dignitas’s services.
Dignitas, which has around 6000 members in 57 countries, is the only Swiss organisation that offers a doctor assisted suicide service to people from abroad. Mr Minelli said that 808 people from 26 countries had used its services, including 84 British people, the third largest group. Most had terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, or motor neurone disease.
More than half of those who have been helped to commit suicide by Dignitas are German—464 or 57%. The next biggest national group is Swiss, just ahead of Britons at 94.
Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland as long as the helper is not acting from selfish motives. In England and Wales anyone who aids and abets a suicide commits a criminal offence that carries a maximum 14 year sentence. However, Mr Minelli said that the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had never prosecuted a relative in England for helping a loved one get to Zurich to visit Dignitas.
In one case, he added, the CPS had asked police in Zurich for evidence, but the Swiss police are not obliged to provide information to foreign authorities if the conduct is not a crime in both of the relevant countries.
Despite this, relatives of British people who use the services of Dignitas still fear prosecution if they make the arrangements or accompany their loved one to Zurich. Debbie Purdy, 44, from Bradford, who has multiple sclerosis, has asked the director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, for an assurance that her husband will not be prosecuted if he helps her go to Zurich.
Without that assurance, she says, she will feel obliged to go there much earlier than she otherwise would, while she is still capable of going without him. More than 30 people who have helped relatives or friends go to Zurich have filed statements with Ms Purdy’s solicitors confessing to helping their loved ones make the trip.
Mr Minelli believes that someone with longstanding depression (“somebody who has had depression for 12, 13, 14 years and has been several times in a psychiatric institution with no effect”) who wants to die should be allowed to opt for assisted suicide, to avoid the risk of a botched suicide attempt. But Swiss doctors will not provide the medical report and prescription needed by law in such cases.
One of Dignitas’s members, a man with bipolar disorder, is bringing a case against Switzerland at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that his human rights have been breached because Dignitas is not allowed to help him die without a doctor’s prescription.