By Hilary White

LONDON, March 9, 2009 ( – A wealthy couple from Bath, England, are the latest British citizens to end their lives at the Swiss suicide facility run by a group known as Dignitas, in Zurich. At the same time, euthanasia advocates in Parliament and some British medical associations are calling for a debate on the law prohibiting assisting suicide in the U.K.

Peter and Penny Duff, a retired wine consultant and his wife, died on Feb. 27, 2009. Both were suffering from terminal cancer. The couple’s daughter, Helena Conibear, called what her parents had done a “beautiful and remarkable thing.” She told the London Times, “It is an amazing story, but because of the legal issues involved we are unable to discuss it at this stage.”

Liberal Democrat MP Dr. Evan Harris told media that their deaths are reason to call for a new debate in Parliament over the law against assisted suicide. Harris, known as “Dr. Death” for his vocal support for legal euthanasia, abortion and embryonic stem cell research, called the fact that in over 100 documented cases of “assisted dying” no one has been prosecuted, an indication that the law is outdated.

He said, “It is time for Parliament to remove the doubt which makes an upsetting situation even more traumatic.”

But Peter Saunders, campaign director of the anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing, said, “One hundred Britons have ended their lives in Zurich. In the same period there have been three million deaths in this country. That suggests there is not a huge, pent-up demand.”
Although actively “assisting suicide” remains a crime in Britain, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, medical associations are beginning to consider the issue more favorably.

The Times reports that new draft “guidance” from the General Medical Council (GMC) includes a warning that physicians who refuse to participate in assisted suicide by withdrawal of “medical treatment” could be “struck off” or lose the right to practice. In Britain, as in Canada, “medical treatment” includes the provision of food and hydration. Where a patient’s wishes are explicit, acting against them “should be deemed to be causing harm,” the guidance says.

“Serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk.”

At the same time, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced it will launch a consultation for members on assisted suicide. A paper prepared for members of the RCN, says, “The notion of ending a human life is a profound and emotive concept, particularly for health professionals whose values and code of ethics are orientated to improving and maintaining health wherever possible.

“However the RCN believes that a consultation with members on this area is now appropriate in light of the wider public debate and the recent developments in relation to assisted suicide over the last few years (in particular the high profile suicides at the Zurich Dignitas facility).”

Dr. Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said, “Recent high profile cases have prompted the RCN to open a consultation to offer all members the opportunity to share their views on this sensitive but important issue. I urge all members to make their voice heard by participating in the consultation, either through forums, branches, as individuals or through regional and country boards.” RCN members have until Friday 22nd May 2009 to make a contribution.

In 2008 it was revealed that of the people seeking euthanasia at the hands of Dignitas and another suicide group, Exit, only 79 percent were terminally ill. Dignitas offers its services to people with mental illnesses, including manic depression and schizophrenia.

In 2007 Dignitas argued its case after filing a complaint that went to the Swiss Supreme Court, saying that a man who suffered from schizophrenia had been refused a prescription for Sodium Pentobarbital to use to kill himself. The court then ruled that chronically depressed and mentally ill people have a “right” to assisted suicide under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Read related coverage:

Mentally Ill have a Right to Assisted Suicide ~ Swiss High Court