“D” for Dignitas

Heartbreak Hotel

Heartbreak Hotel

Alfonso Cuarón was dead on. I haven’t more an intellectual reaction to this article in USA Today than my non-verbal wow.

Drawn by Switzerland’s reputation as a trouble-free place for foreigners to end their lives, more than 100 Germans, Britons, French, Americans and others come to this small commuter town each year to lie down on a bed in an industrial park building and drink a lethal dose of barbiturates. 

But only Switzerland, in a law dating back to 1942, permits foreigners to come and kill themselves, placing few restrictions on the how, when and why. Doctors have relative freedom to prescribe a veterinary drug for that very purpose

Like Ewert, most foreigners turn to Dignitas, one of several Swiss organizations dedicated to the cause. Dignitas’ founder, Ludwig A. Minelli, has built the group into a thriving nonprofit operation.

Dignitas says its members’ right to self-determination is paramount. The only criteria for assisting a suicide are that the person “suffers from an illness that inevitably leads to death, or from an unacceptable disability, and wants to end their life and suffering voluntarily.”

Other such organizations in Switzerland say they are cheaper and do not charge the patient directly, relying instead on membership fees and donations.

So below, their political fallout:

Officials in the canton of Zurich threatened to restrict their activities by making doctors see each patient more than once, and by limiting the supply of sodium pentobarbital. So some groups hoarded the drug, while Dignitas turned to plastic bags and helium.

The bag is placed over the head of a person who then opens a flow of helium, falls into a coma and dies “in 99.9% of cases,” according to Derek Humphry, a British author whose suicide manual “Final Exit” has sold at least a million copies.

But the use of helium smacked to many Swiss of Nazi gas chambers, and made Minelli a tabloid hate figure — a sentiment widely shared in Schwerzenbach.

Like most Swiss, the townspeople support the principle of assisted suicide, but “the helium was the last straw,” says Manfred Milz, who is evicting Dignitas from his building.

It has to leave by June — its third move in two years. Dignitas previously used a private home, hotel rooms, even mobile homes.

But demand continues to grow, Dignitas says.

“We can’t solve all the problems of Germany, England, France and Italy,” he said.


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