Couple who died after suicide clinic visit 'not terminally ill'

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A British couple who were not terminally ill were helped to kill themselves at a Swiss euthanasia clinic, an inquest was told yesterday.

A British couple who were not terminally ill were helped to kill themselves at a Swiss euthanasia clinic, an inquest was told yesterday.

Robert and Jennifer Stokes both had a history of mental illness and failed suicide attempts and were in constant pain from chronic diseases but were not considered to be dying. Despite this, doctors at the Zurich-based Dignitas clinic supplied them with a lethal drugs overdose after agreeing they should be allowed to commit suicide. Mr Stokes, 59, and his wife, 53, died in each other's arms on a bed in the clinic's "death room" in March last year.

The case raises serious concerns about so-called "suicide tourism" and the way in which Dignitas helps people to take their own lives. Under Swiss law, assisted suicide is only a crime if those providing the help can be shown to have acted out of self-interest. But patients must have a terminal illness and be of sound judgement. Mr and Mrs Stokes did not appear to fulfil either criterion.

Recording verdicts of suicide yesterday, David Morris, the Bedfordshire coroner, said: "No evidence has been put to me that either of them were in any terminal state or expected imminent death."

The couple met when both were patients at a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s.

Mrs Stokes had a history of depression and had repeatedly attempted suicide during her previous marriage. Medical notes referred to her as having a "paranoid personality".

In 1983, a road accident left her in constant pain with severe, inoperable spinal problems. She needed help washing and dressing and in 1998 was also diagnosed with diabetes.

Mr Stokes, a retired carpenter, suffered up to three severe epileptic fits a week and also had a history of depression. His medical reports said he had "an inadequate personality with suicidal elements".

The couple's son, David, said: "I know my parents were not terminally ill. The only terminal illness they had was in their heads."

Mr and Mrs Stokes had tried to kill themselves in 1990 and 2001, but had been found and taken to hospital.

Friends said they were both in constant pain and terrified of being separated into different care homes.

They heard about Dignitas last year, following the case of Reginald Crew, the first British man to die at the clinic.

On 31 March last year, Mr and Mrs Stokes left their care home in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, and flew to Zurich. The couple had already written letters to their solicitor detailing arrangements for the repatriation of their bodies and their funeral wishes.

The following afternoon, they left their hotel and arrived at a fourth-floor flat in Zurich used by Dignitas. The flat has a living room, a kitchen for preparing the overdoses and a "death room" with two beds.

At 4.30pm, a euthanasia assistant, Erica Luley, prepared two 15mg liquid doses of pentobarbitone, a drug normally used by vets to put down animals, and the couple went into the death room.

Mr Stokes helped his wife to drink her dose through a straw before lying beside her on a bed and taking his own overdose.

The couple were confirmed dead within half an hour of each other.

The case has sparked an inquiry by the Swiss authorities and the proposals for tougher regulations on the way assisted suicide is tolerated. Members of Dignitas are supposed to be assessed at the clinic to confirm that they are terminally ill and have made a rational decision to die.

After yesterday's inquest, Mr and Mrs Stokes' daughter Helen said: "Although I cannot condone [Dignitas'] actions I do accept and understand my parents' decision. They both suffered many years of ill-health and the possibility of their lives continuing without each other was an unbearable thought. I do believe that it was with fear and courage that my parents chose to take their own lives."

Pro-euthanasia groups condemned Dignitas but said the case highlighted the need for assisted suicide to be legalised and strictly regulated in Britain.

A spokesman for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society said: "This was a horrifying case and it indicates the effect of the laws we have now. Unless the Government puts in place laws that regulate assisted suicide, more people will die this way."

£10 TO 'DIE WITH DIGNITY'

For just £10, anyone can buy the right to die at Dignitas.

The Zurich-based group was set up in 1998 by a lawyer, Ludwig Minelli, who has been a supporter of assisted suicide sincethe long and painful death of his grandmother when he was 14.

The clinic's motto is "live with dignity, die with dignity", and claims to offer terminally ill people a humane way to take their own lives.

Dignitas has more than 1,600 members, 500 of them British, and has helped more than 150 people to die.

At least five Britons are known to have died after travelling to the Swiss clinic over the past two years.

Three of them were terminally ill with no prospect of cure or recovery, but the Stokes case highlights growing concerns that Dignitas is exceeding its ethos of merely helping the dying to end their lives.

Mr Minelli has said that in some cases, depression can also be considered to be an irreversible illness.

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