A recent victim of Dignitas, the suicide provider in Zurich, was Nan Maitland, an 84 year old British woman. She and Michael Irwin, who went with her, were founders of SOARS (Society for Old Age Rational Suicide) which campaigns to allow non-terminally ill elderly people to have help in committing suicide. Liz Nichols of a similar society FATE (Friends at the End) was also there.
Michael Irwin, who was struck off as a doctor in 2005, used to be president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society before it changed its name to Dignity in Dying, and keeps trying, unsuccessfully so far, in spite of being involved in nine deaths, to become a martyr to the pro-euthanasia cause.
Nan Maitland , who though arthritic was still active, said she wished to escape the ‘long period of decline, sometimes called “prolonged dwindling”, that so many people unfortunately experience before they die’.
So often it seems that euthanasia activists have been frightened by seeing those they love suffering, or deteriorating in a way that is painful not for them but for their families. They become determined to frighten others. But there is evidence that the elderly are not only much healthier for much longer than used to be possible, but that they tend to be happier and more optimistic than younger age groups. A ski resort in the USA offered free ski-lift passes for over-seventies, and had so much take-up that they had to make it over-seventyfives the next year.
The slippery slope for Britons is noticeable: first it was terminally ill people with cancer or motor neurone disease, then those with progressive, but not necessarily fatal conditions like multiple sclerosis, and then those with severe non-fatal conditions like the young man paralysed in a games accident, and now a woman in reasonably good health who was just frightened of an imaginary future.
She is not the first. Minelli, who runs Dignitas, seems quite happy to provide death for anyone, including a mentally fragile brother and sister whom he callously said should never have been born. A healthy wife died with her ill husband under Belgian law recently. The conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife were a similar case. Suicides in opera, the last acts of Aida, or The Flying Dutchman, or the Ring Cycle, accompanied by wonderful music, can be moving and beautiful, but in reality it is a miserable end to any life and often leaves survivors unhappy and disturbed. (Though one cannot help noticing that while people who have to have a family pet put down, are always in floods of tears, this does not seem to apply to those who help friends and family to kill themselves so publicly in Zurich.)
One factor in the non-prosecution of these cases is that the dead have clearly not been under any pressure. They are such firm-minded people themselves that they simply cannot grasp how any relaxation of the law would put less assertive and confident elderly or handicapped people at risk.
Several thousand people in the UK, very sadly, manage to end their own lives every year without paying an Italian lawyer to help them. The overwhelming majority die naturally without prolonged disability or pain. Only a tiny percentage go to Dignitas, where a suicide is said to cost £10,000. In effect they are buying publicity, which no one would grudge them if it were not so dangerous for so many vulnerable people.