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Briton Heads to Switzerland for Assisted Suicide

Jan 20, 2003
By Kate Holton

A terminally ill British man travelled to Switzerland on Monday to end his life in an assisted suicide clinic--a landmark case that will challenge Britain's strict position on euthanasia.

Reginald Crew, 74, from Liverpool, suffers from motor neurone disease that has left him paralysed from the neck down. He will be the first Briton publicly to go to Switzerland to die.

A spokesman for the Zurich-based assisted suicide group Dignitas told Reuters that doctors would assess Crew to decide whether he is capable of making such a decision. If they give the go-ahead, he is expected to be given lethal barbiturates later on Monday.

Crew's decision to end his life has once again sparked a heated debate over euthanasia, which is illegal in Britain.

A spokesman for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) told Reuters that Britain's euthanasia laws were far too strong and urged the government to soften their stance.

"Britain's laws are the strictest in Europe, matched only by Ireland," he said. "I think it is so sad that terminally ill patients are forced to go abroad."

Last May, Belgium joined the Netherlands as the only two countries in Europe to decriminalise euthanasia. VES said that other European countries gave nominal sentences for assisted suicide.

In Switzerland, which has no laws on euthanasia, helping a terminally ill patient to die is widely considered a humane act.

Crew was expected to travel to Switzerland with his 71-year-old wife and carer Wyn but VES said that under current British laws, his wife could face prosecution when she returns to England for assisting a suicide.

In Britain, it is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

VES said they had written to the director of public prosecutions asking for the situation to be clarified.

The controversial topic was last brought to prominence by British woman Diane Pretty, who campaigned for her husband to be given immunity from punishment if he helped her commit suicide.

Pretty, who died last May, fuelled a heated debate on the topic of euthanasia when she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights. But her hopes of ending her life were dashed when the court agreed with the views of a British court and rejected her pleas.

Anti-euthanasia group Alert said of Crew's decision: "Alert is grieved to hear that the life of another volunteer for assisted suicide is to be ended today."

"A civilised society does not say 'yes you are worthless', but recognises the value of everyone's life, however disabled or depressed a person may be."

Dignitas, whose director Ludwig Minelli is a journalist and human rights campaigner, has helped 146 people to die in 4 years, a spokesman said.

© 2003 Reuters Ltd