- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

ZURICH An organization in Switzerland to help people kill themselves if they become terminally ill or severely depressed is attracting members from abroad.
Pro-life organizations have condemned Dignitas, a society based in Zurich, accusing it of encouraging "suicide tourism" and drawing comparisons with the Nazi program of euthanasia for the mentally ill or disabled.
Dignitas, whose membership has soared in the past year, provides prescription drugs and nursing facilities to help people kill themselves.
While assisted suicide is illegal in most countries, it is allowed under Swiss law as long as the drugs are self-administered and the person is making a rational decision to die. Since Dignitas was founded four years ago, it has helped 110 persons from around the world to kill themselves.
The rise in membership which increased by 750 last year to 1,620 has also alarmed Swiss authorities, who fear that the growing influx is turning this affluent lakeside city into the world's euthanasia capital.
Dignitas has members from several parts of Britain. Klaus Eckstein, 70, a retired teacher from England, almost died of bladder cancer but recovered after an operation in 1998.
"I may develop cancer again," he said. "If it's painful or unpleasant, I might want to put an end to it all. If I am fit enough to travel, I might like to go to Switzerland to die. There is also the possibility of having a stroke or something where the quality of life will be so poor that I'd like to be released."
Anti-euthanasia groups, however, condemn Dignitas for "treading the same path" as Nazi Germany, which ran a euthanasia program targeting disabled children as a precursor to the Holocaust.
"It is disturbing that such an organization is allowed to pursue its purposes quite lawfully and that this movement is gathering ground," said Bruno Quintavalle, of the ProLife Alliance in London. "Society should foster and protect life, but here, the medical profession is dirtying its hands."
Andreas Brunner, a public prosecutor in Zurich, said the authorities were looking into cases in which Dignitas had helped Austrian, Dutch, French and German nationals to kill themselves.
"Some arrive one day and die the next," he said. "We can't always check whether their wish to die has been a long-term one or just a phase they're going through."
Dignitas does not charge for the service making a profit from assisted suicide is illegal under Swiss law but people pay a $15 membership fee and some make donations.
The organization does not advertise. Some members are referred to it by right-to-die groups in countries where assisted suicide is illegal. Others find it on the Internet or hear about it from acquaintances.
Applicants must provide a letter giving their reasons for wishing to die, along with medical records indicating terminal illness, great pain, severe disablement or a long history of mental illness that makes life unbearable.
Dignitas arranges an appointment with a Swiss doctor to assess each case. On a few occasions, the doctor has sent patients away for more treatment. In most cases, the doctor writes a prescription for the necessary drugs.

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