17th April, 2003
By Becky Barrow
The Swiss authorities were criticised yesterday after a British couple who were not terminally ill ended their lives at an "assisted suicide" clinic in Zurich.
Bob Stokes, 59, and his wife, Jenny, 53, died earlier this month, becoming the first Britons known to have used the services of Dignitas, the controversial Swiss clinic, without being terminally ill.
Mr Stokes suffered from bad epilepsy and his wife had multiple sclerosis, according to the Zurich district attorney Edwin Luscher. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition, but not necessarily a terminal one, affecting about 85,000 people in Britain.
The couple, who left the retirement care home where they lived in Leighton Buzzards, Beds, without telling their family about their plans, were also understood to battle with depression.
Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, said that he was appalled by the case and the actions of the Dignitas clinic.
He said: "If Dignitas is allowed to carry on, it makes our laws a mockery because people can just get on a plane and kill themselves."
Mr Leigh said the Stokes case highlighted the failings in the pro-euthanasia lobby. "It shows the weaknesses with the whole euthanasia argument. Where do you stop? What happens to some child who has an appalling mental or physical illness? Do you knock the child on the head?" he said.
The case of Mr and Mrs Stokes contrasts sharply with Reginald Crew, the first Briton to commit suicide openly with Dignitas's help, who was crippled by motor neurone disease. His wife, Win, who went with him to Switzerland, said she gave her husband of 51 years "the only thing I had left to give".
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, also expressed concern that a couple could die with such ease while suffering from illnesses that did not need to make their lives unbearable. She said: "We don't know everything about the Stokeses, but it seems extremely sad that people who did not have terminal illnesses chose to end their lives, particularly if they were depressed. There is so much that can be done to treat that depression."
Dr Anthony Cole, chairman of the Medical Ethics Alliance, said that he and his colleagues were "saddened and dismayed" that people with treatable diseases were being helped to die by overdosing.
Mr Luscher said Swiss law did not require people to suffer from terminal illnesses in order to use Dignitas' services although the organisation would not necessarily accept all people who contact them. It is understood that an application by the Mr and Mrs Stokes earlier this year was refused.
He has made four trips to Dignitas's offices between March 31 and April 5, to deal with five people. He confirmed that three were British, including Mr and Mrs Stokes. The third person has not been named.
Patients must actively take the medicine that will end their lives, rather than having the pills put into their mouth by a nurse or another third party.
Ludwig Minelli, the Swiss lawyer who founded Dignitas five years ago,
declined to comment.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003