A British doctor under police investigation for helping terminally ill patients to die has vowed to go to prison in order to promote his "great cause".
In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Dr Michael Irwin, a GP from Surrey who faces police questioning tomorrow, said he was prepared to go to jail rather than give up his campaign for Britons to have the right to die.
The disclosure came as it emerged that Dignitas, the clinic set up in Switzerland to provide assisted suicide, is considering opening an office in London to meet growing demand. The group, founded by the Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli in 1998, has already helped 42 Britons to end their own lives.
Euthanasia groups yesterday reported that they had been inundated with calls from people seeking help to commit suicide after the high-profile death of Dr Anne Turner, the 66-year-old who took an overdose of painkillers last week at the Zurich Dignitas clinic because of her incurable brain disease.
"The phone has melted this week," a spokesman for the charity Dignity in Dying said yesterday, adding that the organisation - formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society - had not been able to deal with the volume of calls.
According to voluntary euthanasia campaigners, growing numbers of people are choosing to end their lives abroad because the Government has refused to introduce right-to-die legislation. They are hoping that a private member's Bill, currently before the House of Lords - which would give doctors powers to write lethal prescriptions for terminally ill patients, but not to administer the drugs - will prevent the need for a flight to Switzerland.
Despite facing a possible jail sentence of 14 years, Dr Irwin said yesterday he was still not sure if he had broken the law by giving advice on suicide. The GP, who was struck off the medical register last year for helping a terminally ill friend commit suicide, has written to the Crown Prosecution Service 10 times, asking if giving people advice on suicide is considered a criminal offence. He has yet to receive a reply. This will be his fourth interview with Surrey police.
"I will be meeting the Surrey police tomorrow morning for my usual cup of hot chocolate and chat," he said. "Even the police aren't sure if I have committed an offence in providing information that assists suicide."
From her house in Bradford, Debbie Purdy is passionate in her belief that the law should change. The ex-marketing director was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago and has recently been confined to a wheelchair. After completely losing the use of her legs she can now feel her arms slowly developing similar symptoms. The 42-year-old fears becoming immobile, in pain and entirely dependent on others. She said yesterday: "My husband has been fantastically supportive and I wouldn't allow him to face jail for helping me to end my life. Soon I will not be able physically to kill myself. It is not that I necessarily want to die; I just want the option."
Dr Irwin thinks that cases like hers are worth going to prison for. He said: "I am 75 in June. I am not afraid of the authorities. They can chuck me into prison if they like, but if Dignitas phones me and ask me to help, I will. I have helped five people to die with dignity in the past. I will continue to do this if people want my help. It's a great cause. It's all hypocrisy, anyway - everyone knows doctors are always helping terminal patients to die."
Research published last week estimated that nearly 3,000 British patients were illegally helped to die by doctors in 2004. The academic report also revealed that an estimated one-third of people who died in the course of the year - 192,000 patients - had their deaths accelerated by doctors using pain-relieving drugs.
Opponents of euthanasia say Dignitas and another Swiss organisation offering similar services, Exit, have contributed to the growth in "suicide tourism" to European countries with more liberal laws. Before her death Dr Turner, said: "I think it is very, very important that people have the opportunity to do in this country what I'm going to do."
Among those who believe that it is not right to agree to requests for an early death is the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries. "We would not accede to the request of a teenager if they asked for help in killing themselves," he said. "I know that if a person is old and debilitated and worried about the degenerative nature of their disease, that is very difficult. But I would want to try to convince them that their life was still precious."
To help someone commit suicide in Britain is still an offence, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
RIGHT TO DIE
'The law will force me to die too soon'
Debbie Purdy, 42, lives in a terrace house in Bradford with her musician husband, Omar. She had a job in marketing and PR.
"I used to bomb around the world. I had a lot of fun. Then I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995. At first I noticed I was getting tired too quickly and my legs wouldn't go in the right direction. Finally I couldn't walk. Now my arms are getting tired.
"I want to have the law changed, not so that I can die, but so that I can enjoy my life now. I will lose the ability to look after myself at some point. Crucially, I will also lose the ability to take my own life. Under the current law I would have to make a decision now if I wanted to commit suicide, while I still can.
"Anne Turner died before she was ready. Were the law different she could have stayed in England, where she could have been helped to die. To the Government I say, if you value life, change the law. People are dying before they need to."
54: percentage of UK doctors in favour of legalising physician-assisted suicide
92: percentage of pensioners who believe doctors should be able to end a life
3: percentage of GPs who have helped patients to die
3,000: British patients were helped to die by doctors in 2004
1961: The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised taking one's own life but made it a crime to aid, abet or counsel another to kill themselves
6: The Sixth Commandment is "Thou shalt not kill". Many Christians say suicide is a sin
66: per cent of Britons favour legal voluntary euthanasia
7: per cent of people oppose euthanasia in any situation, according to a recent surveyReuse content