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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Assisted Suicide: Moral and Ethical Dilemma
Assisted Suicide is a personal decision to end ones' life instead of facing prolonged suffering from a terminal disease.
- Voluntary Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Information by Exit International
Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide is a highly debated topic. Exit International helps you make the right choice when investigating assisted suicide / euthanasia or the peaceful pill handbook.
- Dignitas, Swiss Euthanasia clinic Geoghegans Weblog