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Updated on May 16, 2013

Dignitas: Dignity, Self-worth, Pride

Dignitas is one of the Roman Virtues, together with Gravitas, Humanitas, Honesta, Firmitus and others- the purpose of which was to provide a guideline of moral qualities to which every Roman citizen should aspire.

It's also the name of an organisation in Schwerzenbach, Switzerland where people from all over the world travel to die, via assisted suicide. According to Swiss law, no person who aids and abets in an assisted suicide will be prosecuted if they are not motivated by self-interest. Founded by Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli in 1998, several hundred people have ended their lives through the clinic, although according to Minelli: "Most people coming to Dignitas do not plan to die but need insurance in case their illness becomes intolerable. Of those who receive the green light, 70% never return to Dignitas".

Dignitas is under constant scrutiny and has been criticised for promoting suicide tourism and also for not being open with their financial records. Several smear campaigns have been launched against the organisation since its inception, including tabloid media reports alleging the organisation was "killing people with plastic bags to save on costs".

In a few cases in 2008, the clinic did use breathing helium as a suicide method, but according to Dignitas, this was due to a a new regulation imposed by medical authorities in Canton, Zurich (where Dignitas was formerly located) prohibiting doctors from writing a prescription for the lethal drug Nembutal after a single consultation. The difficulty was that some people were so ill that they were unable to travel to Zurich several times.

Former headquaters of Dignitas, in Zurich, Switzerland.
Former headquaters of Dignitas, in Zurich, Switzerland.

Gravitas: knowing the importance of the matter at hand

The decision to offer assisted suicide as a service, is of course, a serious business and there is a rigorous process to go through before acceptance. The first step for those who seek an end to their life is to meet with a variety of Dignitas personnel, as well as an independent doctor, for a private consultation. The evidence provided by the person is then assessed. Then they must again meet with the doctor, on two separate occasions, with a time gap in between and they are also required to sign an affidavit which has to be be countersigned by independent witnesses.Where a person is not physically able to sign, a video must be provided.

Always, a short time before the lethal overdose is provided, the person is reminded that taking the overdose will result in their death. The person is encouraged to take an out if they so desire and they are asked over and over again during the process if they still want to proceed, or to stop and take more time to consider the implications of what they are about to do.. This is important as it offers the person several opportunities to halt the process. Dignitas videotapes the procedure and when it's all over, must by law notify the police about what has occurred.

Source Wikipedia

In a 2010 article for the The Guardian, British man Richard Geary told of his own personal experience with Dignitas when he took his wife of over forty years - Jenny, there to die. Jenny was suffering from a progressive neurological disease that would eventually prevent her first from swallowing and finally, from breathing unaided:

In a room at the clinic on a nondescript industrial estate she drank a 50ml draught of muscle relaxant, lay down on a couch, fell asleep and was dead within eight minutes. The trip to end her life at Dignitas had been his wife's idea, Geary said, and despite several opportunities to delay or abandon her suicide plans she had been determined to press on.

The Gaurdian

In the following video, John Zaritsky discusses his controversial documentary, The Suicide Tourist. The clip also includes footage of motor neuron sufferer Craig Ewert, who chose to die by means of assisted suicide, in his final moments at Dignitas.


Dr. Phillip Nitschke. Image from The Telegraph.
Dr. Phillip Nitschke. Image from The Telegraph.
Lisette Nigot
Lisette Nigot

Exit International

According to its website, Exit International is "a leading end of life choices information/ advocacy/ law reform organisation". The organisation was founded by Dr. Phillip Nitschke, who as a vocal advocate for voluntary euthanasia, has been a highly controversial figure both in Australia and internationally for many years.

Nitschke drew some particularly virulent criticism in 2002 when he was featured in a documentary advising a woman - Lisette Nigon, on the effects and uses of the lethal drug, Nembutal, after she had expressed a firm conviction to end her life before she turned eighty. What disturbed many viewers was that apart from her advanced years, the bright, clear-eyed woman was in good health, not depressed, so she claimed and wished to end it all simple because she no longer gained enough enjoyment from life and didn't wish to face the inevitable deterioration of old age. I might as well go while the going is good, she said.

In the film it appeared Nitschke neither encouraged nor attempted to dissuade her from her course of action. Although he was not present at her death and did not directly assist in the suicide, it seemed shocking to dispassionately allow this healthy woman to act out her own choices about the timing and method of her own death and not try to prevent her. According to Exit International, Nitschke had been in contact with the woman for three years and had indeed argued against her decision, but she remained adamant. "In the end, Dr Nitschke accepted her position and assisted her in her choice".

Nitschke's radical personal conviction is that anyone over 65 should have access to drugs like Nembutal but understands that legislation is a safer way to proceed. While few people in the wider community would support a law that enabled healthy people to gain access to drugs that could end their lives at will, most can at least emphathise with someone who is suffering from a terminal illness.

Bob Dent, the first man in the world to die by euthanasia from a legal lethal injection in Darwin, Australia in 1995
Bob Dent, the first man in the world to die by euthanasia from a legal lethal injection in Darwin, Australia in 1995

Legislating Assisted Suicide

Critics of euthanasia argue that pain can be be controlled by good palliative care yet this is not true in every case. Nor is pain always the sole motivator for those with a terminal illness wishing to end their life. A severe illness can drastically reduce quality of life, the real effects of which may cause humiliating, terrible side effects as well as total dependency. It this suffering combined with the loss of dignity that many people fear.

Opponents have also voiced concern over the possibility that people who are terminally ill and a burden to their families may feel pressured to take their own life. Supporters respond that while it's true that many people do fear being a burden to others, it seems unlikely that those who wished to hang onto life would end it against their own will to live, even if such pressure were to be exerted. However, most advocates acknowledge legislation would need to include processes and evaluations to ensure that no-one is pressured into taking their own life.

At the moment what many doctors practice is a kind of slow assisted suicide whereby they up the doses tof morphine to higher and higher levels, shortening the lives of their patients in the process, in an effort to alleviate suffering. Governments are loth to enact voluntary euthansia legislation, in spite of the fact that, in Australia at least, 80% of the voting public are in favour of it. Most who support such legislation will never use it, rather what they want is the security of knowing that an escape hatch is there for them if they need it - it's about having a sense of control over their own life and death.

Interestingly, Phillip Nitschke posits that voluntary euthanasia may actually help prolong life, in that it removes some of the fear and anxiety associated with illness and dying. According to Nitschke "knowing they have access to a peaceful death, people stop feeling so preoccupied with the fact that they may be trapped (by their illness). They relax...and when they relax they become less inclined to do desperate things".

Short-lived Darwin Trial

In a world first, assisted suicide for the terminally ill was trialed briefly under state law in Darwin, Australia in 1995, however the legislation lasted only nine months before it was overturned by federal parliament. It is now illegal in all states. As things stand, only those with the necessary funds can travel to clinics like Dignitas to find help. Poorer people determined to end their suffering are left to their own devices, occasionally employing violent means to die - guns, plastic bags and gas and carbon monoxide poisoning. The vast majority of people with a terminal illness do not choose to end their lives and arguments have put forward that with the right social support, palliative care and pain control it should not be an option. Yet the truth is that for some, none of these things can alleviate their suffering. Supporters argue that sufferers should have the right to decide these matters for themselves.

Legalised voluntary euthanasia is a difficult and controversial social question, posing complex moral issues. For those with a deeply held religious conviction, the sanctity of life argument may overide other considerations, while for others, maintaining control over one's own life and death is paramount.

Pietus:dutifulness, piety, devotion, respect for the natural order

Pope Benedict XVI has declared that "euthanasia is a false solution to the drama of suffering":

The strength of life is in suffering.I wholeheartedly join in their (Italian Bishops) message in which we see the love of pastors for their people, and the courage to proclaim the truth, the courage to state with clarity, for example, that euthanasia is a false solution to the drama of suffering, a solution unworthy of man. The true answer cannot be putting someone to death, however 'kindly,' but to bear witness to the love that helps us to face pain and agony in a human way. We are certain: No tear, whether it be of those who suffer or those who stand by them, goes unnoticed before God.

However, for some believers and non-believers alike, there is nothing gracious or noble in purposeless suffering. In 2008, a thirty-one year old Melbourne writer suffering from terminal colon cancer made a public plea via YouTube, to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The young woman's description of her devastating illness and subsequent suffering is hard to watch but it is even harder to believe that what Angelique is asking for is anything other than reasonable.

Angelique flowers died in August of that year and did not take her own life. According to her brother Damien, she suffered pain until the end, despite large doses of morphine. In her final hour Damien held a bowl to her chin while she vomited fecal matter. He told The Age newspaper, "The peaceful end wasn't there."

A Plea from Angelique Flowers

Angelique Flowers
Angelique Flowers


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    • Vortrek Grafix profile image

      Vortrek Grafix 

      4 years ago

      Providing Dignitas makes a responsible medical evaluation to confirm a patient is mentally competent, requesting assistance completely voluntarily, and suffering from an irreversibly terminal condition, then that patient should have every right to make that decision. Anyone whom has ever stayed with a terminal patient while they were being taken off life support understands how ghastly it is waiting for the inevitable. Neither the patient nor their loved ones should have to compound their grief with the additional horror of not having a more dignified and peaceful option available.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thnaks very much Sembj

    • Sembj profile image


      7 years ago

      A difficult but important topic that was well written and well thought out - thanks.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi france...yes there's a lot more to Switzerland than Dignitas, I'm sure. Thanks for the comment.

    • france1982 profile image


      7 years ago from Planet Earth

      I have heard about Dignitas and suicide tourism a few years ago but I didn't put attention much on that. After reading this hub, I realized that it had had been in Switzerland... mmm... I think It is a different view about Switzerland, beside its beautiful natural tourist attraction... Otherwise, Switzerland is still a fascinating country.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      jsarm..haha, you sound perfectly lucid to me and I agree with you 100%. Life might be a gift but it can also become a curse and whatever it is, it is *ours* and any decision about when and how to end it ultimately belongs to us.

      Thanks so much for the great comment!

    • jrsearam profile image


      7 years ago from San Juan, PR

      Jane, I had a couple of beers with some friends this afternoon so I apologize a priori if I seem overly emotional and slightly incoherent but once again you strike a sensitive nerve so I had to comment. Dignitas! Dignitas! DIGNITAS!!! How fitting a name for an organization, which if its aims are as noble as their name implies, is probably one of the most humanistic endeavors ever undertaken by any group of people in the history of mankind! To die with dignity is no small feat and anyone who has lived long enough and loved generously, no doubt has seen how the approach of death can be a cruel, vicious, motherf---er, transforming life into an unending parade of soul wrenching tediousness in the best of cases and hellish torments in the worst. As a libertarian, not necessarily Libertarian, nothing could be more fundamental to me than the right to choose how and when I will die without government, or any one else for that matter, attempting to make that choice for me. Once again, your writing is not only thought provoking but emotionally stirring. Thanks for the rush Jane but I think I feel the first signs of a headache coming on so for now I'll sign off.....see you again soon. Rafa

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thanks very much crystolite and Cheri!

    • Cheri Bermudez profile image

      Cheri Bermudez 

      7 years ago from Maryland

      Great article- very well done.

    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Fascinating hub,thanks for sharing.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Golfgirl, thanks and nice to see you btw. Of course, you're right - everyone will make up their own minds about this. Governments though, don't seem to want to let people decide for themselves.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Thanks Rod. Yes, I don't think I can agree with Nitschke about everyone over 65 getting access to Nembutal.I can forsee difficulties with that.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      A.A. Zavala...yes, it is very controversial and sometimes complex. When Craig Ewert(from the video) died, the Dignitas worker poured the lethal cocktail and passively held the cup but it was Craig who willingly sucked from the straw. It's still assisted suicide I suppose yet Craig took the active step.

      Cheers and thanks for the comment.

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hey Austin, thanks for reading. Not sure if it's true, but evidently in times of famine, the Inuits (pre-Western influence)used to take the elderly out to sea and set them afloat on a drifting iceberg.

      Not that I'm suggesting we should do the same. Just pointing out the different views. I sure woudn't want to be pushed out on an iceberg if I wasn't ready to depart!

      We do all have to go...I think the whole thing boils down to people wanting to have as much control as possible over how they handle it.

    • Golfgal profile image


      7 years ago from McKinney, Texas

      Jane you have taken on quite a serious, contraversial, and sensitive subject and really did a great job reporting the details of the personal stories. Each person has the opportunity to evaluate their own feelings and define what it means to them. Cudos.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Good hub and done with some sensitivity for the subject. It is a difficult area. Assisted suicide really does need to be regulated properly otherwise you will end up with cases of murder disguised as assisted suicide. Even so, when the individual is in pain and will not get better and there is no quality to life and they want to go then legislators should find a way to make it okay to go.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Fascinating hub. Suicide is a controversial subject, especially when assisted. Thank you for sharing.

    • Austinstar profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      Excellent article. I've never understood why the government should even get involved in this. Native Americans decided to end their lives by just taking some things (blankets, pillows, whatever) and going on a vision quest. They literally willed themselves to die if they wanted to. No one questioned their wisdom or personal choices. If they couldn't walk, the tribe would assist. It's a natural thing, not something to regulate. We all have to go!


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