In the last year, Dignitas in Switzerland has attracted great media coverage, in the UK and in Europe at large, for assisting the suicides of people who are not Swiss citizens. In Britain alone, 500 people have become members of Dignitas since January, when the Today (television) programme accompanied 74-year-old Reginald Crew, a Motor Neurone Disease sufferer to the Dignitas’ Clinic. The following articles outline the Crown Prosecution Service’s policy regarding “suicide” or “death tourism”, the British police’s handling of Reginald Crew’s case, and other recent Dignitas cases in Britain.
- British Home Office policy regarding “Death Tourism”
At the beginning of November 2002, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the Crown Prosecution Service’s policy on section 2 (4) of the Suicide Act 1961. On the 19th May 2003, following the deaths of Robert and Jennifer Stokes (see below) Lord Charles Falconer, Minister of State for the Home Office, sent the following reply:
“As you know, section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 makes it an offence in this country to aid, abet, counsel or procure somebody to commit suicide. Provided that the aiding, abetting etc takes place in this country, we believe (though the point is untested by the courts) that the offence under section 2(1) is committed even where the suicide occurs abroad. However, aiding, abetting etc, of suicide abroad is a matter for the authorities in whose jurisdiction the suicide occurs. It is therefore for the Swiss authorities to determine whether any offence has been committed under Swiss law (whether in the Stokes’ or any other case).
We are of course concerned that UK citizens, whether terminally ill or not, may be helped to die in countries where this is legal in certain circumstances. But this is a matter of law in the country concerned and not one in which the Government should intervene.”
- Recent Dignitas Cases
Having suffered the increasingly debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease for more than four years, Reginald (Reg) Crew, 74, of Hunts Cross, Liverpool, decided to take advantage of Switzerland’s more sympathetic attitude to assisted suicide. On the 20th January 2003 Reg his wife, Win, and their daughter travelled to Zurich. Five hours after their arrival, Reg drank a lethal dose of barbiturates that had been prepared by a representative of Dignitas.
On Tuesday 21st January, Merseyside Police said that they were obliged to investigate Reg’s assisted suicide. At the time they were unable to say whether Win would ultimately face charges of assisting a suicide as that decision rests with the Crown Prosecution Service. They have since confirmed that the case has now been closed and no one associated with the case will be charged.
Controversy over British couple’s death at Dignitas Clinic
The assisted suicides of a British couple at the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich has increased the controversy in Britain surrounding the organisation’s work. On 19th April 2003, the news broke that Robert and Jennifer Stokes from Bedfordshire, England, had died from taking lethal doses of barbiturates at the Clinic.
Their deaths caused public concern in Britain because neither had a terminal illness. Robert Stokes is reported to have had epilepsy, his wife, Jennifer, is believed to have suffered from back problems and depression. It is believed the couple may have supplied Dignitas with medical notes that (wrongly) described Jennifer Stokes as having multiple sclerosis.
Pro-life groups have used the Stokes’ case to argue that any attempt to decriminalise assisted dying in Britain would inevitably lead to the taking of lives without proper consideration.
However, VES say the Stokes’ deaths demonstrate the need for legislation like Lord Joffe’s Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill which would legalise assisted dying for mentally competent, terminally ill people (see above). The proposed law would not have enabled the Stokes to commit suicide legally, but one of its aims is to promote communication between the doctor and patient. As it stands, the UK’s blanket ban on euthanasia forces the practice underground and as a result vulnerable people are not protected.
Some of the Stokes’ relatives are calling for the Dignitas Clinic to be shut down.
On Monday 26th May 2003, John Close became the fifth Briton to die at the Dignitas Clinic. John Close, 54, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in March 2001 but his condition had deteriorated rapidly. His sister Lesley said he had decided in January that he would like to end his life at some point because he had “an increasing sense of helplessness and dependence on other people to provide for his everyday needs… He talked about committing suicide by his own hand but was afraid of failing and waking up to find he was being stomach-pumped.”
John Close held a farewell party on Saturday 24th May, before flying to Zurich the following day.
Ex-SAS Soldier pleads for assisted death
On the 6th June 2003 (the day of the second reading of Lord Joffe’s Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill ) a former Special Air Service soldier called for the legal right to choose to end his life.
John (who could not disclose his full identity) suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and requires full-time care. He said his quality of life had deteriorated to such an extent that he should be given the choice of ending his life. He also said he was planning to make contact with Dignitas and had already contacted solicitors to investigate the implications of an assisted suicide.
He remains anonymous because he is concerned to protect both his children and the pension and insurance schemes he took out shortly after joining the SAS.