Suicide is 'a marvellous possibility', says Minelli, founder of Dignitas suicide facility. Care Not Killing has welcomed BBC programme's exposure of Dignitas but warned against a false conclusion
BBC Radio 4 last night featured a report on the Swiss suicide organisation Dignitas and its founder, Ludwig Minelli.
The Dignitas system, listeners were told, was “riddled with flaws and loopholes”. As an example, the case was cited of a British lady with a history of suicide attempts. She had gone to Switzerland with pretended paralysis, but the pretence had not been detected during medical assessment by a Dignitas doctor. She received assistance with suicide. There was a particular difficulty, listeners were told, with psychiatric illness. Swiss psychiatrists refused to examine candidates for Dignitas assisted suicides, so it was necessary for visiting Britons to acquire a report from a British psychiatrist to the effect that they were mentally competent. We were told by representatives of the British organisation Friends at the End, described in the programme as “Dignitas's ideological soulmates”, that Minelli had made attempts to influence such reporting by designing his own pro-forma for use in psychiatric evaluation.
Listeners were told of the 'bleak industrial estate' where the Dignitas apartment is sited. Dignitas is no “clinic”, as it is often mislabelled in the media: it has no connections with the Swiss health care system. A former employee was interviewed who expressed concern at the way the organisation was being run by Minelli. She told of people arriving for assisted suicide only to be told that Dignitas no longer had settled premises and that the suicide would have to take place in an hotel room (without the hotel management being informed what was going on) or even in a car in a car park.
Minelli himself was interviewed. He admitted giving assistance with suicide to psychiatrically ill people, but he believed his 'safeguards' were adequate. He was, he said, opposed to 'paternalism', adding that “human autonomy has to be respected”. He wanted to see assisted suicide made legal without any conditions at all. It was, he told the BBC, “a human right”. Minelli believed that legalising assistance with suicide in Britain could save the NHS money: it would obviate the costs incurred in reviving and caring for failed suicides – “sometimes you have to put them in institutions for 50 years”. He did not appear to accept the argument that most suicide attempts were cries for help.
Listeners were then taken to hear Patricia Hewitt, who had recently put down an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill which would have exempted from prosecution anyone who assisted another person – whether ill or not, whether mentally competent or not, whether suffering or not, whether coerced or not – to go to Switzerland to commit suicide. When it was put to her that her amendment, had it succeeded, would have delivered many more Britons into Minelli's hands, her response was that her amendment had been just a “plain vanilla amendment” – ie one without any conditions or restrictions – because she had been simply been trying to “stimulate a much wider debate” on the subject of assisted suicide. Many people will find such a cavalier response shocking. What would Mrs Hewitt have done if her amendment had been debated, voted on and carried!
It is to be hoped that, when the Coroners and Justice Bill comes to the House of Lords after Easter, Peers will have been warned by this exposure of Minelli's Dignitas not to toy with irresponsible amendments to its Suicide clauses that would put vulnerable British people at risk.
Dr Peter Saunders, Director of Care Not Killing, welcomed the programme's exposure of Dignitas. But he cautioned against the false conclusion that, because Dignitas was putting British people at risk, we should therefore legalise assisted suicide here. “The law prohibits assistance with suicide for a good reason – to protect the vulnerable” Dr Saunders said. “With the penalties it holds in reserve, it is able to deter cases of abuse and coercion while dealing compassionately where the circumstances are appropriate. It is a fallacy to assume that the very small number of assisted suicide cases that we see at the moment are typical of what we would see if the practice were to be legalised. The lesson from Dignitas is not to go down the assisted suicide road at all”.
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