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British couple die in suicide pact at Swiss euthanasia clinic

Husband and wife did not tell friends of Dignitas plans

An elderly British couple have committed suicide at the Dignitas euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, it emerged last night.

Peter Duff, 80, and his wife Penelope, 70, are believed to be the first British couple to have ended their lives at the clinic in Zurich. They were both suffering from terminal cancer.

The couple, from Bath in Somerset, told their friends they were moving into a second home in Dorset but flew instead to the Dignitas centre where they passed away last Friday. Exactly how they chose to die is unclear.

Mrs Duff had been suffering from a rare form of stomach cancer known as GIST for more than 15 years, and was cared for by her husband, a retired businessman. He was then diagnosed with cancer of the colon, which spread to his liver and became terminal.

Last night the couple's daughter, Helena Conibear, 41, confirmed that her parents had passed away together in accordance with their wishes.

In a statement, the family said: "Peter and Penny Duff passed away peacefully together in Zurich after a long battle against their terminal cancer on the 27th February.

"Penny had fought a rare cancer, GIST, since 1992 and Peter's colon cancer had spread to his liver. Their decision in no way reflected on the wonderful and humbling care they have received from their consultant, doctors and nurses, for which the family, and they, were so appreciative."

Dignitas is now thought to have helped more than 100 Britons to die. The controversial clinic was set up in 1998 by the Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli. Assisted suicide remains against the law in the UK.

The couple were well known in Bath, where Mr Duff was a patron of the annual arts festival.

He was a respected expert on wine who founded the Wine Guild of the United Kingdom and was also the chairman of the Alcohol in Moderation support group, of which the couple's daughter Helena remains the executive director.

David Keeling, 64, a friend of the couple, said the news of their deaths had come as "a complete shock".

He said that most people in the neighbourhood had thought they were simply moving house.

"They have lived here in Bath for many, many years but recently told us they were moving to a property in Dorset," he said.

"We were aware they both had cancer in an advanced stage and she had had it for many years, I believe, and it was healed but then came back. We are all very sad to hear the news they were unwell and there was a rumour they were going to Dorset and not expecting to come back. But they certainly didn't tell anyone here they were going to Switzerland and that has come as a complete shock."

Mr Keeling added that he was "sympathetic" about the couple's decision.

"Peter was very proud of his situation and life and therefore the sudden onset of cancer hit him very hard," he said. "For his age, he was a bouncy and active man and this came as a terribly big blow to him because he was very proud of his active life."

The British anti-euthanasia campaign group Care Not Killing said that legalising euthanasia in the UK would be "very dangerous", as terminally ill patients would begin to see themselves as a burden to the NHS.

A spokesman said: "This is a desperately sad and unusual case of a couple in a state of distress. However, hard cases make bad law and the fact remains that, if euthanasia was ever legalised in Britain, vulnerable and seriously ill people would come under pressure to end their lives prematurely. The right to die could so easily become a duty to die."