Terminally ill man's journey to Switzerland to find dignity - and death

Health Editor,Jeremy Laurance
Tuesday 21 January 2003 01:00 GMT

Reginald Crew made his final journey yesterday to a suburban flat in an apartment block in Zurich where he was helped to end his life.

Reginald Crew made his final journey yesterday to a suburban flat in an apartment block in Zurich where he was helped to end his life.

The 74-year-old former car worker from Liverpool, who had motor neurone disease, died after travelling to Switzerland to seek help from the charity Dignitas, which assists people with terminal or distressing illnesses to commit suicide.

After being assessed by the charity's doctors to check his medical history and his mental state, Mr Crew was given a dose of barbiturates to drink through a straw. He lapsed into unconsciousness and was declared dead at 2.04pm British time, with his wife, Winifred, and daughter at his side.

Ludwig Minelli, director of Dignitas, said: "They were very sad but they know that this was the way Mr Crew wanted [it]."

Mr Crew joined Dignitas last year after seeing a television programme on the organisation. Supported by his wife, 71, who has watched his health decline, he paid the 100 Swiss francs (£46) registration fee and the annual membership fee of SFr50 and prepared for his death.

He told reporters at the time that he had had enough of struggling to live with his illness. In the four years since he was diagnosed, it had stripped him of his capacity to look after himself, his dignity and his pleasure in life.

Mr Crew had lost the use of his arms and legs and the muscles in his neck were so weakened that his head had to be supported with pillows.

A former golfer and hiker, for the past five months he had been confined to the living room of the couple's bungalow in Liverpool. He never left his chair, where he ate and slept, except to be lifted on to the lavatory by Mrs Crew.

Interviewed two weeks ago, he said: "All I'm asking for is a favour to put me out of my misery. It wouldn't be morbid for me to end my life. It would be a weight off my shoulders, like going on holiday. I have had a good life but my illness is incurable and will only get worse. I'm not afraid of dying, only of living."

His wife was against the idea at first but came round. She said her husband had decided to publicise his case in the hope of promoting euthanasia in Britain.

He was inspired by the case of Diane Pretty, the woman with motor neurone disease who lost her attempt last year to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to allow her help to end her life.

"We watched the Diane Pretty case and could not believe it when she lost," Mrs Crew said. "Reg wants people to understand what it is to have this disease. He can't feed or bathe himself. He can't lie down because of the agony. He has lost his neck muscles, which means he can't eat solids and soon he will lose his voice.

"We don't want to go to Switzerland to do this but we have no choice."

Mr Crew is the second Briton to commit suicide with help from Dignitas. In October a 77-year-old man with throat cancer was helped to die, with his son and daughter at his side.

Dignitas was set up by Mr Minelli, a lawyer, in 1998 to help people "live and die with dignity" and has 2,300 members. It makes no charge for its service beyond the registration and membership fee. It is believed to be unique in accepting foreigners, who make up more than a third of its members, most from Germany but including more than a dozen Britons.

A spokesman for the charity said yesterday: "We disagree with organisations who claim they back human rights and then treat people from abroad as if they are not human."

The charity's activities have drawn criticism from Zurich's public prosecutor, Andreas Brunner, who accused it of promoting "death tourism".

In Britain, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society has written to the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking a review of the law. It has demanded that the Government provide "well-regulated medically assisted death" in the UK to end the need for desperate, terminally ill people to travel.

But a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said yesterday: "Assisted suicide is illegal and will remain so." The Home Office said the Crown Prosecution Service could construe the booking of flights as aiding a suicide.

Dominica Roberts, of the ProLife Alliance, said Mr Crew's assisted suicide was "a setback to anybody who is not virile, up and doing". She said: "[This] is a sad day because it sends out an entirely false message that ill people are not worth keeping alive.

"Palliative care specialists will tell you that it is possible to give terminally ill people a degree of comfort.

"Those who are in constant pain are not being cared for properly. It is a shame that this negative quick-fix answer of assisted suicide will edge out the alternative, which is to offer proper care to the terminally ill.

"Voluntary euthanasia inevitably leads to involuntary euthanasia so this is bad news for anyone who feels old, frail and vulnerable."

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