Swiss suicide helper says he is saving lives
ZURICH, July 4 (Reuters) A Swiss lawyer who has helped arrange 573 deaths believes his assisted suicide centre Dignitas, which has attracted people from all over the world, has saved many more lives than it has ended.
Ludwig Minelli, a spry 73-year-old who hopes to live beyond 100, said it was important to break social taboos over suicide, which he called ''a marvellous possibility'' for those wanting to control their conditions of their deaths.
By offering people a chance calmly to contemplate ending their lives and discuss their options with friends and family, Minelli said his non-profit association had actually kept many people from committing the act.
''We are the biggest suicide preventing organisation,'' he said, estimating that as many as 70 per cent of those cleared for assisted suicide with help from Dignitas decided against it.
In an interview at his home in Zurich, Minelli said the eight-year-old group was ''doing a very important job'' and rejected criticism by religious, medical and political leaders that he actively encouraged people to consider killing themselves.
''I have always been a person who helps people,'' he said.
NO RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT Swiss statutes on assisted suicide are among the most liberal in the world. There is no residency requirement and only one visit to a Swiss doctor is needed to receive approval.
Dignitas, founded in 1998, has become a lightning rod for public outcry in Europe because much more of its clientele comes from abroad than other Swiss right-to-die groups.
Most of the 5,000 ''members'' contemplating suicide live in Britain, Germany and Switzerland, although Minelli said they were spread across more than 50 countries worldwide.
In a conversation lasting nearly three hours, in which he spoke of Dignitas members as young as 20, Minelli said he hoped assisted death would soon be available everywhere.
''People all over the world should be given an opportunity to have an assisted suicide with instructed helpers, preventing every risk, for a death without any pain,'' Minelli said.
Drawing parallels with abortion, once restricted to back alleys and now part of mainstream medical care in most Western countries, the former journalist said it was critical that suicide be openly acknowledged, discussed and regulated.
''I think that within about 50 years, most parts of the world will accept it...so there are no longer any lonely suicides and just assisted suicides,'' he said.
DEATH TOURISM Minelli has provoked the anger of medical associations and religious leaders who argue he is actively encouraging people to think about killing themselves, and from politicians who say his work risks making Switzerland a death-tourism destination.
The Swiss government decided in May to not tighten the laws that affect assisted suicide despite increasing numbers of foreigners coming to the country specifically to die.
An assisted suicide with help from Dignitas, which includes a medical consultation, a prescription from a Swiss doctor for lethal drugs consumed in a nondescript Zurich apartment, and cremation, costs about 3,500 euros (,500).
Minelli said Dignitas carefully screened members to ensure their intended assisted suicide was ''justified'' because of debilitating or degenerative ailments, a clear desire to die, and a lack of ways to make life bearable through pain therapy or hospice care.
''We never have a possibility to say 'send us 3,500 euros and the next day you will be dead'. We always look first to see if we can help the person to live,'' he said.
Without access to assisted suicide, Minelli said desperate people were vulnerable to severe and long-term physical and mental damage from unsuccessful suicide attempts, which he said were 50 times more common than successful suicides, citing a US study.
Minelli urged governments to inform the public about the risks from ineffective suicide methods, and encourage frank conversations about death and dying.
The self-described agnostic said it was critical that people not be alone in their last moments of life.
''You should not leave for a long journey without saying goodbye to your friends and your family,'' he said.
REUTERS CH KN0846