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Last Updated: Monday, 20 January 2003, 14:38 GMT
Dignitas: Swiss suicide helpers
Assisted suicide is illegal in many countries
"Live with dignity, die with dignity" is the slogan of the Swiss charity, Dignitas.

The group, based in Zurich, has caught the headlines as people with chronic diseases from around the world travel to Switzerland to ask for its help in committing suicide.

Dignitas was founded in 1998 by Swiss lawyer, Ludwig Minelli, who runs it as a non-profit organisation.

It takes advantage of Switzerland's liberal laws on assisted suicide, which suggest that a person can only be prosecuted if they are acting out of self-interest.

Legal basis

The law on suicide actually states:

"Whoever lures someone into suicide or provides assistance to commit suicide out of a self-interested motivation will, on completion of the suicide, be punished with up to five years' imprisonment".

Dignitas interprets this to mean that anyone who assists suicide altruistically cannot be punished.

Its specialist staff all work as volunteers to ensure there can be no conflict of interest.

They engage in detailed discussion about whether the patient's determination to die falls within the legal boundaries, and whether it is indeed the declared will of the patient.

Dignitas also provides a text for patients, which states their wish for assisted suicide in terms which cannot be misconstrued and which allows them to carry out their wishes even in the face of opposition, if necessary.

Peaceful and painless

Once the decision has been made, the patient travels to Zurich where he or she is taken to a Dignitas flat to administer the dose of barbiturates which will end his or her life.

This will be your last drink - afterwards it's over, you will sleep two to five minutes and afterwards you will die
Erica Lully, Dignitas nurse

"What we are doing is a friendly act... we have never had a problem with police," said Mr Minelli.

"The patient always makes the last act - swallowing the drug or opening a valve of a drip himself."

The drug is supposed to induce a deep sleep within minutes of being taken, which will lead to a peaceful and painless death, Dignitas says.

Nurse Erica Lully, who prepares the doses, told the BBC News website how she deals with patients in the last few minutes of their life.

"I bring [the drink] to the patient and once again ask, 'Is this your last day because this will be your last drink.

"Afterwards it's over, you will sleep two to five minutes and afterwards you will die'."


Despite the apparent demand for Dignitas' services, the group's activities have stirred up some opposition within Switzerland.

We do not want Switzerland to be a destination for tourism for suicide
Beatrice Wertli, Swiss Christian Democrats
Beatrice Wertli, from the Swiss Christian democrats, has voiced concerns about the legal basis of an organised group promoting and carrying out assisted suicide.

"We feel the organisations are too pushy in helping people to commit suicide," she said.

And she is worried about the reputation it is giving her country.

"We do not want Switzerland to be a destination for tourism for suicide," she said.

The Swiss way of death
12 Aug 02 |  Newsnight
Q&A: Assisted suicide
29 Apr 02 |  Health

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