Although there have been many attempts, in the UK since 1936, to legalize doctor-assisted dying, it is, unfortunately for many suffering individuals, most unlikely that such a law will be adopted in the near future.
It is tragic that the UK – mainly because of opposition from religious organizations and, to a lesser extent, from some disability groups and the medical establishment – is unable to follow the example of other civilized Western European countries (namely, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Switzerland) in providing the option of doctor-assisted dying (whether this be an assisted suicide and/or voluntary euthanasia) for its mentally competent adults who are suffering unbearably from medical conditions that severely impair their personal quality of life.
On April 29, 2002, the European Court of Human Rights stated that “In an era of growing medical sophistication, combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity”.
On January 20, 2011, the ECHR added, “The Court finds that the right of an individual to decide how and when to end his life, provided that said individual was in a position to make up his own mind in that respect and to take the appropriate action, was one aspect of the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the Convention”.
While there is generally a very good palliative care system in the UK, there are many competent individuals who would prefer to have greater control over how their lives should end when they are suffering unbearably, due to serious medical conditions, and have reached the logical stage of a completed life. In these situations, some people may unfortunately attempt suicide at home (in the majority of cases, with disastrous results): others may illegally receive assistance from a doctor (two extensive surveys in the UK in 2004 and again in 2008, published in the journal “Palliative Medicine” in April 2009, revealed that about one thousand deaths, due to voluntary euthanasia, had then occurred annually in this country), and a few will travel to Switzerland where foreigners can legally receive a doctor-assisted suicide.
The Last Choice – Switzerland, an independent advisory bureau, was established on December 10, 2017 (international Human Rights Day) by Michael Irwin, a retired GP, who has been the Chairman (from 1996 to 1999, and again from 2001 to 2003) of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (which became Dignity in Dying in 2005), and was the founder of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide in 2009 (in 2016, SOARS changed its scope of work and was renamed as My Death, My Decision). Since 2005, he has acompanied five individuals to Switzerland to witness their doctor-assisted suicides there.
The main function of The Last Choice – Switzerland is to give reliable advice on what is involved in going to Dignitas (in Zurich), to Lifecircle (in Liestal, near Basle) or to EX International (near Berne) for a doctor-assisted suicide – these are the Swiss non-profit member societies willing to help seriously-ill foreigners in this way.
Up to December 2017, at least 400 Britons have travelled to Switzerland for a doctor-assisted suicide. Of all those who have accompanied these determined individuals, on their final journeys, while several have been questioned by the police, upon their return to the UK, only eight (including Michael Irwin, in 2009) have actually been arrested. But, most importantly, no one has ever been charged. Although the point has so far not yet been tested in the UK courts, The Last Choice – Switzerland believes that today no legal authority, in the UK, any longer has legal grounds to prosecute someone, acting compassionately, accompanying a relative or a friend to Switzerland for a doctor-assisted suicide.
Some people are naturally concerned about the cost involved in travelling to Switzerland for a doctor-assisted suicide. In general terms, the total expense (for the travel and hotel costs; the fees to the Swiss doctors and those handling the actual suicide, and the necessary cremation which happens in Switzerland) is about £10,000 – but, it must be remembered that a cremation, in the UK, can cost at least a third of this sum. Fortunately, for individuals who have very modest economic circumstances, a reduction of some costs can occasionally be made.
One day, the law will change in the UK to provide the option of a doctor-assisted death for all competent, severely suffering adults (and, not only those who are terminally-ill, and expected to die in a few months). But, until this happens, The Last Choice – Switzerland will be involved in assisting to provide an efficient and dignified alternative.
It is important to realize that competent, suffering British adults already have access to a doctor- assisted suicide – it just happens to be offshore at present.
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