More MS news articles for September 2002

Swiss Assisted-Suicide Group Under Investigation

Sept 13, 2002
By Michael Leidig
Reuters Health
VIENNA, Austria

An assisted-suicide organisation based in Switzerland is being investigated by public prosecutors over cases in which the organisation helped foreign nationals end their lives.

Assisted suicide is tolerated under Swiss law, as long as the drugs are self-administered and the person is making a rational decision to die. The organisation, Dignitas, is based in the city of Zurich and claims a membership of 1625 people from all around the world.

It pledges to help anyone who wants to "die with dignity" and said that last year it helped 50 people to kill themselves, 31 of whom were Swiss citizens. Since the organisation was founded 4 years ago, it has helped 120 people end their lives.

"We are investigating cases where Dignitas has helped Austrian, Dutch, French and German nationals to kill themselves," Zurich public prosecutor Andreas Brunner told Reuters Health.

Dignitas general secretary Ludwig Minelli told Reuters Health on Friday that he was aware of investigation and the criticism from the Zurich public prosecutors. "They claim people come here and die on the same day...but they do not say we have been in contact with these people for weeks, or months or years." He believes the prosectors are wasting "a lot of money on their investigation."

"Our founding principle is that everybody has the right to put an end to their life if their suffering is unbearable and there is no hope of relief," he said. "It is nothing new, it's what Thomas Moore said in 1517 in his work 'Utopia', namely that if an illness is unbearable, the ill person can choose death as life can no longer offer anything positive."

Minelli added he hopes the example they are setting in Switzerland might lead to a more liberal view on euthanasia in other countries.

Dignitas' office in the Wiedikon suburb of the city is where members can take a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital. They are usually assisted by a nurse and often surrounded by relatives, Minelli said.

Those who want to die need to produce medical records about their illness and a letter explaining why they want to die. They also need to have a consultation with a Swiss doctor.

Euthanasia has encouraged heated debate in many countries, especially early this year after the European Court of Human Rights rejected the right-to-die challenge of British woman Diane Pretty.

Pretty, 43, who suffered from motor neurone disease, eventually died in May after losing a legal battle for the right to allow her husband to help her commit suicide.

Dignitas is not allowed to charge for its service, as making a profit from assisted suicide is illegal in Switzerland, but it does charge a 15 euro membership fee and also accepts donations.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd