Whose Life is it Anyway?

As a Swiss passport holder I am legally permitted to travel to the country of my birth and enlist the support of Dignitas or Exit in order to end my life. In England, assisted dying is illegal. In 2002 Diane Pretty, who was suffering with advanced Motor Neuron Disease, was denied the right to travel to a clinic in Switzerland. No one could have prevented Ms. Pretty from getting on a plane to Zurich but, as she was unable to make the journey alone, her husband would have been seen as an accomplice and so run the risk of arrest and prosecution upon his return to the UK. It is this concern for loved ones that is a major obstacle for foreigners wishing to die in Switzerland.

Diane Pretty’s lawyer argued that forbidding her to go to Switzerland, with all the consequences that this would entail, was a breach of human rights, rights which outlaw ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’. A lawyer for the British government pointed out that this referred to treatment imposed by others and did not include a naturally occurring illness. Ms. Pretty subsequently took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the right to life included a right to choose whether to carry on living. The court disagreed and said that the right to life was not determined by quality of life.

Switzerland is one of the few countries to accept foreign nationals at its assisted dying clinics. Dignitas reported that in 2018, more than 90% of its applicants were non-Swiss. Some believe that Switzerland has one of the most progressive policies in the world regarding assisted dying; others accuse it of promoting ‘suicide tourism’.

I have no experience of MND or other incurable conditions such as Locked-in Syndrome but, when I walk myself to the far reaches of my imagination, these are some of the questions that arise: What are my choices? How much freedom do I have to pursue those choices? What are my responsibilities as a spouse/parent/child/sibling? How do I end my life with dignity? How do I engage the issue of respect – respect for my right to choose; respect for the opinions and wishes of others? What does fear look like? How do I take ownership of ambivalence in a decision so final? What if I have a change of heart? Will I have the courage to tell my family and friends, with their brave faces and their dry eyes, that I suddenly have reservations about drinking a cup of poison in an unmarked unit on a Zurich industrial estate; that leaving this world, this life, these people that I love, might be harder than I could ever have imagined? Will they support me? Will they worry that I might change my mind back again?

I know of two people in Switzerland who have chosen the path of assisted dying. One had been paying an annual subscription fee to Dignitas for many years. Rather like an insurance policy, there are various levels of service available. In this man’s case, he had paid to die at home with a medical team present. It seems that he had no reservations or second thoughts. He was carefree and relieved. He had made the decision to end his life at a time when his mind and body were still fully functioning. His children and grandchildren, however, were sad and said they couldn’t agree to the man’s request to be with him when he died. In the end they changed their minds, perhaps because they didn’t want to live with regret; they wanted to be with this man, this father, this grandfather until the very end of his one wild and precious life*

On April 29th, 2002, the day Diane Pretty lost her case in the European Court of Human Rights, her husband, Brian, told the press that he felt disappointed for Diane because she had been denied her choice of when to die. He added: I’m pleased in one respect because it means I have my wife here for a bit longer.

Diane Pretty died twelve days later in hospice.  

*from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver