When a loved one wants to die
The partner ‘One of the options is that I would die with Marie’THE HOUSE
IT SEEMS AN unlikely day to choose to die. As I drive across the Swiss countryside, the early-morning sun lights up the neatly cut fields. In spite of my trepidation about our destination, it feels like a fine day to be alive. Yet on a different road, not far away, someone else is driving towards the same destination, with the clear intention of ending their life.
With me in the car is Ludwig Minelli, a human-rights lawyer and the founder of Dignitas, the Swiss organisation that helps people to legally commit assisted suicide.
My colleague Zoë Moore and I are researching A Time to Die?, our documentary on the subject, and Minelli has offered to give me a tour of the house where people from all over the world come to die. Minelli is well known in the right-to-die movement, but a quick internet search would reveal him as a somewhat ghoulish presence. Dr Death, some people love to call him.
Nearly all media coverage of Minelli describes him in this darkly emotive language, but I find him gracious and genial. Earlier, he had taken great care with making me a delicate cup of a rare tea while enthusing about his many other passions: orchids, cheese, Winston Churchill and astronomy. He seems – and I don’t think it was some cunning PR ruse – to be a man very much in love with life rather than a sinister harbinger of death.
We have set out early to see the house because a Dignitas “member” is coming to die today. Arriving at about 9am, we are greeted by two of Dignitas’s many volunteers. They are preparing the house for the arrival later in the morning and have all the cheery air of solid people who might help out at cake sales or other charity events. They are warm, efficient and reassuring.
The house is in a small industrial estate; it’s an odd location for such a poignant purpose. Swiss planning law would not allow Dignitas to operate in a residential area.
Minelli gives the tour. There are two comfortable rooms where one can be assisted to die. (The demand is such that two assisted deaths might take place simultaneously.) The house is comfortably functional; not luxurious but not the spartan clinic one might envisage. There are boxes of tissues, bowls of chocolates and candles about the place. There is a small kitchen, and a room full of wheelchairs, hoists and other medical equipment. Outside is an odd garden, nestled amid the industrial units, complete with a pool of goldfish.
It seems a slightly uninspired place from which to leave this world but then, I suspect, those who come here to die are somehow already on their way out of this life and may be less concerned with their surroundings than we might imagine.
Suddenly, Minelli tells me we must leave. The member has arrived an hour early. They have driven from Italy and were not due until 11am. This seems to upset Minelli’s exacting sense of timing and order. But as we open the door we bump into the man who has come to die. He stands in the porch with his wife, his son and his doctor. An aristocratic-looking Italian, the man recognises Minelli and embraces him, thanking him warmly for his Dignitas work. I hang back in the shadows, not wishing to intrude. But Minelli turns and introduces me.
The man who has come to die shakes my hand enthusiastically. “Ireland?” he says, lighting up. “What a beautiful country. But you have your problems now, eh?” So, as if neither of us had a care in the world, we stand and pass the time, making small talk about this and that for a few moments.
Wishing him well, I say my goodbyes and head back to Zurich. Meanwhile, the man who has come to die goes into the house and, presumably, readies himself for death.
An hour and a half later I sit in the warm sunshine overlooking Lake Zurich with Zoë. It feels odd that while we drink our coffee the man who came to die is, most likely, dead. He has perhaps sat in one of the functional armchairs that we saw. He would have been asked repeatedly whether he wished to die. He would have assented and then, in the company of but not assisted by his wife and son, drunk a small glass of liquid. He may have had a small Swiss chocolate to quell its bitter taste.
He would momentarily feel a ferocious thirst and crave water. But he would have been warned about this and been told that any water might reduce the efficiency of his lethal prescription. And then, with a shocking simplicity, he would die.
At that moment, as we sip our espressos, the local police might well be filling out the paperwork while the undertakers, with that undeniable Swiss efficiency, transfer his corpse into a hearse. The elegant Italian gentleman is no more, and that is no more than he would have wished for. Still, for Zoë and me, it just doesn’t feel right.
AN ACT OF LOVE
It seems odd to want to die. We have conjured with this thought many times over the past 18 months, during the making of our documentary. And yet, mostly, the people we have met haven’t seemed very odd at all.
But then, first and foremost, they all wished to live. They were, in no way, in love with “easeful death”. In most cases they were suffering from painful and debilitating illness and diseases and feared a terrible and horrifying end. The thought took hold that they might exercise some control over their demise.
An assisted death. An assisted suicide. Euthanasia. Peaceful pills and exit bags. Taking the plane to Switzerland.
Some years back I had begun to notice Irish people talking openly about taking the plane to the home of the cuckoo clock. But with a bit of gallows humour. A devil-may-care attitude. So I wondered if it revealed a more serious intent.
When we embarked on the film it seemed to be an idea that was gaining traction. Yet only six Irish people have died at Dignitas, compared with 164 Britons. (Worldwide research indicates that an assisted death will always remain the choice of an independently minded minority.)
But what of those who wish to die at home? In Ireland? Dr Libby Wilson, a compassionate and matter-of-fact GP who founded the Scottish organisation Friends at the End, told us that she usually has a couple of people in the Republic “on the go, as it were”.
Wilson, one of the leading lights in the campaign for family planning in Scotland during the 1950s and 1960s, supports and provides information to people who wish to end their lives. Working from the kitchen table of her elegant Glasgow home, she often takes calls from Irish people looking for help.
It has proved exceedingly difficult to talk on the record to Irish people who wanted the right to die. Although suicide was decriminalised in 1993 it remains an offence to assist, counsel or procure the suicide of another person, with a possible jail sentence of 14 years.
In the coming weeks this law will be challenged in the High Court by two of the people featured in the documentary, Tom Curran and his partner, Marie Fleming. Marie has multiple sclerosis and wants the right to an assisted death at home in Co Wicklow. Tom has agreed to help her, even at the risk of prosecution. It is an act of love, he argues.