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Last week, an elderly British couple travelled to Switzerland. He was 80, she 70. They kept their trip secret from all but their closest family; before leaving, they sold their £2m Bath home and told neighbours they were planning to move to Dorset, though they had no intention of doing so.
Criminals on the run from the police, perhaps? Debtors evading their creditors? Fraudsters fleeing from a con-job? No: their only crime was to suffer from terminal illnesses, and their punishment was to be forced to fly to Switzerland in order to die with dignity.
They both suffered from crippling terminal cancer. Peter Duff had colon cancer which had recently spread to his liver and been deemed terminal; his wife Penelope had a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, a particularly rare and aggressive form of stomach cancer which attacks the stomach wall.
They decided to go to Switzerland rather than die painful, drawn out, and likely separate deaths, and enlisted the help of the Swiss company Dignitas. Given a lethal dose of pentobarbital they died, according to their daughter, peacefully and together—the first British couple to travel together to Switzerland in order for both to commit suicide.
Their control over the way they ended their life was made possible by the Swiss legal system. Like in Britain, it is legal to commit suicide in Switzerland; unlike in Britain, it is also legal to assist someone in commiting suicide, provided your motivation is altruistic.
The company that helped them, Dignitas, is the only one of Switzerland’s four assisted suicide groups that helps foreigners, and Switzerland is the only one of those jurisdictions in which assisted suicide is legal and openly practised that does not bar foreigners. This combination has made Dignitas and Switzerland the only option for Britons who wish to end their lives before they are taken over by a terminal and chronic illness.
Why, then, is our law so backward, so inhumane, so dismissive of self-ownership? We place such an emphasis on palliative care, on making people comfortable as they slide—or more often, shudder—inexorably towards death. We clearly recognise the pain and trauma involved in a protracted death; we recognise that there is pain not only for the sufferer, but also for their friends and family, forced to see their loved one degrade physically and mentally to a shadow of their former self. And yet we do not allow people to escape this grim fate if they so choose: we force them to experience every painful minute of it, and for what?
Critics of assisted suicide maintain that to introduce assisted suicide laws would be to create a “culture of death”, to devalue life and encourage suicide. Poppycock. Rates of suicide in Switzerland are roughly comparable to general European levels at 17.5 per 100,000 population; for comparison, France’s rate is 17.6, Germany’s 13, the Netherlands’, in which assisted suicide is also legal, 9.2 and the UK’s 6.8. There exists no correlative relationship between legalising assisted suicide and increased rates of suicide, let alone a causal one.
There is criticism also that allowing assisted suicide would pressure those with terminal illnesses into committing suicide as a result of the burden placed on their carers—either through their own guilt or through the exhaustion of their loved ones. Again, poppycock. There are rigorous safeguards in place in the Swiss system to ensure that the patient’s wish is a genuine one: firstly, the patient’s illness must meet the medical standards of severity and terminality; secondly, the patient is given multiple chances to change their mind, with weeks and months between the first and second consultations and multiple confirmations of consent in the hours and minutes before the assisted suicide.
In addition, of those who receive confirmation that they are eligible for assisted suicide, 70% do not commit suicide; their consultation is simply for the peace of mind that, should their condition and quality of life deteriorate considerably, they will always have the option of ending their suffering. It is clearly a peace of mind that such patients consider worthwhile.
So why can we not adopt the Swiss system in Britain? After all, the Council of Europe in 2002 strongly urged its member states, of which Britain is one, to consider decriminalising assisted suicide—a recommendation that was rebuffed by the British political system, all of whose parties seem unwilling even to consider the prospect.
Gordon Brown, speaking last year, said that British law must make absolutely clear the value of human life: in doing so, why must it ignore the quality of human life? This is the same British law that forced the Duffs to die early, while they could still manage the trip; it forced them to travel in secrecy; and worst of all, it forced them to die in a strange city away from their family and friends. That this happened once is inhumane: that it is a situation that will face any one of us if we wish to have control over our own lives, and that the law looks unlikely to change in the future, is a travesty.