Kennedy quits euthanasia society in row over Swiss suicide clinic

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The Independent Online

The veteran broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy has resigned as president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society amid a bitter row over the leadership and direction of Britain's largest right-to-die organisation.

The veteran broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy has resigned as president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society amid a bitter row over the leadership and direction of Britain's largest right-to-die organisation.

Sir Ludovic, a lifelong supporter of euthanasia, has sent a "blistering" letter of resignation to the society after the board voted to expel its former chairman Michael Irwin, who has admitted helping terminally ill patients to contact Dignitas, the controversial assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland.

The row has caused a seismic split within the society at a time when the law on euthanasia is under review by both the courts and Parliament.

Campaigners are divided over whether they should support organisations such as Dignitas or merely continue advocating "living wills" which state a person's wishes about the withdrawal of treatment in their final days.

Dr Irwin stepped down as chairman earlier this year after he was arrested on suspicion of helping a terminally ill friend to commit suicide, but had continued as a board member. But insiders at the society said Dr Irwin angered the society's chief executive, Deborah Annetts, by giving an interview to The Independent in which he admitted advising at least five people with terminal illnesses on how to be accepted by Dignitas.

The clinic provides an apartment with a "death room" and supplies of lethal drugs with which patients can kill themselves. The society has distanced itself from Dignitas and will not give callers to its helpline any information or advice about the organisation.

At the closed board meeting last Thursday evening, four members, including another doctor, voted against Dr Irwin's expulsion, while six elected to oust him.

As president, Sir Ludovic did not have a vote but was reportedly "furious" at the result. He told members that he intended to resign in support of Dr Irwin and sent his letter to the society at the weekend. Yesterday he told The Independent: "I have resigned. I will be issuing a statement on Tuesday."

Sir Ludovic abandoned the Liberal Democrats in the 2001 general election because their leader, Charles Kennedy, refused to support voluntary euthanasia. He ran for parliament as an independent candidate on the right-to-die ticket, but failed to win the seat.

There are now moves within the Voluntary Euthansia Society, which has 15,000 members, to propose a motion calling for Dr Irwin to be reinstated as a board member.

Dr Irwin said: "I am very disappointed at the way I have been ousted - I haven't even been given a clear reason for my expulsion, except that it is to do with the things I have said in recent weeks and months.

"We should be able to debate these issues rather than stifling discussion."

Sources within the society have said that Ms Annetts can be a "control freak" and refuses to tolerate any dissent.

In a statement, the society defended the vote: "We are saddened that our relationship with Dr Irwin has deteriorated over the past nine months, but felt it necessary to take this step, as the society regards Dr Irwin's stated objectives to be a distraction from our dedicated efforts to work within the law to bring about its change."

At least six British people have killed themselves at the Dignitas clinic over the past year. None of the dead people's relatives have been prosecuted for aiding or abetting a suicide, and Dr Irwin has challenged the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute him in order to test the law on euthanasia.

A House of Lords Bill which would have allowed people to kill themselves, or doctors to assist them, in very limited circumstances, failed earlier this year through lack of parliamentary time.

The Lords has now set up a select committee to review the current law and recommend any change which would allow assisted suicide.

At the same time, Leslie Burke, a terminally ill man, is taking High Court action to ensure that doctors do not withhold life-saving treatment or nutrition from him.

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