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EDITIONS
Newsnight Monday, 12 August, 2002, 19:54 GMT 20:54 UK
The Swiss way of death
BBC reporter Emma Jane Kirby (right) talks to Dignitas nurse Erika Luley (left)
A nurse (l) stays with patients, but can't actively help

A few months ago, cuddling up to her teenage children on the sofa, Jenny Kamer told her family she was going to get help from a Zurich based group called Dignitas to commit suicide.

She had just returned from a long stay in hospital where doctors had had to put her into an artificial coma for two weeks to keep her alive.

"It's very hard to tell your children you want to die," she said.

"But I have been dying slowly from an intestinal disease for 10 years now and I can't do this anymore. I want to die. Now I have to just choose a date."

Distressing reaction

When she told her family that the was going to get help to die, her 16-year-old daughter couldn't wait to leave the room.

She has blocked out her mother's decision and doesn't want to discuss it with her any further.

Her 18-year-old son Steve surprised her. He said he would like to be there with her when she chose to die to hold her hand.

"It's not my body, it's her body," he shrugged.

"Of course when I lie in my bed at night I get very sad thinking of her.

"But I want to let it be her decision. She is the one who is in pain."

'A friendly act'

Jenny paid 10 to join Dignitas and since she has been a member of the organisation, trained hospice staff from the group have paid her numerous visits to prepare her and her family for the moment she'll choose to die.

Dignitas is run by a lawyer, Ludwig Minelli, who says he set up the organisation because he believes that if someone is terminally ill, it is their human right to die when they choose.

" To live with dignity, to die with dignity. That is our motto.

"What we are doing is a friendly act. The patient always makes the last act - swallowing the drug or opening a valve of a drip himself - so we have never had a problem with police."


If I don't take my life myself, I will suffocate to death because my lungs are collapsing - and that is a terrible and undignified end

Sigrid Casey
Although there is nothing concrete in the Swiss penal code which says that assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, the practice of helping a terminally ill patient to end his or her life is widely recognised as a humane act.

Unless the person helping is proven to be acting out of self seeking motives, prosecution is extremely unlikely.

Dignitas has made sure that, at each of the 109 deaths it has assisted at over the past few years, there were two witnesses and the local authorities are always informed.

It has never fallen foul of the law.

Helping foreigners

There are four assisted suicide groups operating in Switzerland.

But Dignitas goes further than the others by offering help to foreigners who cannot die in their own countries.

Sigrid Casey, a German woman with terminal bone cancer, came to Switzerland to die with Dignitas because she saw it as her only hope of getting peace.

"The pain is terrible despite the morphine I take," she says from her hotel room, just three hours before she plans to take the lethal drug.

"I could have killed myself at home... taken 100 sleeping pills but there's no guarantee I wouldn't wake up again.

"If I don't take my life myself, I will suffocate to death because my lungs are collapsing - and that is a terrible and undignified end."


Don't be sad... I am at peace with this

Sigrid Casey
Sigrid was taken by Ludwig Minelli to see a doctor who examined her to check that she didn't have a chance of recovery and that she also had made a rational and premeditated decision to die.

After an hour's consultation he gave her the barbiturate.

She was then taken to an apartment owned by Dignitas where foreigners can end their lives.

"Don't be sad, " she smiled as the lethal drug was prepared in the sparse and functional kitchen.

"I want to go. I am at peace with this." She lit up her final cigarette, drew on it for a few breaths and then nodded to indicate that she wanted to swallow the diluted drug.

"Let's go, it's time."

Forty minutes later, Mrs Casey was dead.

Meanwhile, at her home in Zurich, Jenny Kamer holds her son's hand and talks to him about finalising her termination date.

Emma Jane Kirby's report was screened on BBC Two's Newsnight.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in the report, or if you would like to get more information about the subject, call the BBC Action Line on:

0800 888809.

The Action Line is open from 7am until midnight every night.

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"A German women is preparing to die"
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