The founder of Dignitas – a Zurich, Switzerland, clinic that assists those with illnesses end their lives – says he wants to open a chain of “suicide clinics” in other countries to give everyone, including the mentally ill, the “the choice of a choice.”
Ludwig Minelli, a Swiss lawyer, told the London Sunday Times he has already opened an associated Dignitas office in Germany and he intends to lift the “taboo” against suicide by lobbying other countries to set up clinics to offer information on effective methods of suicide and to alert people to the risks of doing it incompetently. Denying people the right and the information necessary to take their own lives, Minelli, said, exposes them to “huge collateral damage” – the costs of emergency services, police, medical treatment and possibly living with further impairment.
“Many people who attempt suicide don’t know how to do it,” he said, while pointing to his forehead. “They don’t even know how to shoot themselves. They aim here and just blow the front of the head off, and live on as a vegetable.
“We need to set up advisory centers where people can openly discuss problems and seek advice about methods and risks, without the fear of losing their freedom and being put in an institution,” he said. “These centers can only be credible if they can offer assisted suicide.”
Minelli has helped 450 people commit suicide since founding Dignitas in 1998 – Swiss law permits the act of assisting someone with a “medical indication” to die. The organization charges members – there are 5,500 who pay a modest annual subscription – $3,500 for a planned death, the payment covering all administrative fees and compensation to the “collaborator” who mixes the lethal cocktail of sodium pentobarbital with a glass of water. The client must be able to drink the from the glass on his own – no assistance is given. A deep coma follows after five minutes and death, 20 to 30 minutes later.
While he has been called “the Howard Hughes of the assisted dying campaign” for his unwillingness to speak to the press, Minelli is talking now because of his plan to expand and make assisted suicide available to the mentally ill.
One Dignitas member who suffers from manic depression is fighting in Switzerland’s Supreme Court to have Minelli assist him in his death without the required medical indication or a prescription for the life-ending drugs – an action Dignatas encourages.
“If we lose, I’ll take the case to [the European Court of Human Rights],” Minelli said. “I tell members suffering from mental illnesses: I am fighting for your freedom.”
“We never say no,” he said. “Even those suffering from Alzheimer’s will have lucid moments in which they may choose to die once a certain point has been reached, such as when they can no longer recognise their children.
“We would never assist the death of someone with acute depression, because the depression is a symptom of the illness,” said Minelli. “But if somebody comes after 10 or 12 years of depression and says they do not want to prolong their life under such conditions, then we might help them to die.”
Minelli has opposition from a number of groups, both pro-life and pro-euthanasia.
“Minelli does not understand that attempting suicide is a call for help,” Dr. Peter Saunders, general secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said. “Once the physical and psycho-spiritual needs are met the desire for suicide tends to go away. It is laughable to suggest that someone with Alzheimer’s, who cannot remember two minutes later what they told you, could have the capacity to understand and weigh up and make a decision on suicide. The potential for abuse is horrendous.”
Dr. Brian Iddon, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the organization Care Not Killing – created to oppose a bill currently under consideration that would permit assisted suicide in the UK for those suffering terminal illnesses – is blunt about Minelli’s position: “Putting people who are mentally ill to death just because they are mentally ill is abhorrent.”
Even the UK’s established pro-euthanasia groups separate themselves from Minelli.
“We are campaigning on behalf of people who are terminally ill and mentally competent,” a spokesman for Dignity in Dying said. “That way you can assure you are not harming vulnerable people.”
Minelli, who has helped over 40 Britons, who traveled to Zurich, die is undeterred, insisting the mentally ill have the same right to choose their own manner of death as the mentally healthy.
“The idea of a terminal illness as a condition for assisted suicide is a British obsession,” he said.
Minelli, an agnostic, said his passion for astronomy helps him put the death of a client into perspective.
“I have a 20-centimeter telescope which I mount in my garden. Sometimes at night the sky is ablaze with stars. I can see Jupiter with its four moons and Saturn’s ring system. I am familiar with the cosmos and I know this man is only preceding me by milliseconds, in a cosmological dimension.”
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