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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Some things we do in life happen once; the first time will be the only and last time. Our births and deaths, of course, are the two key ones.

CONTENT WARNING: this post discusses suicide, death, and dying.

I am a member of the Swiss organization, Dignitas, which is most well known for its assisted suicide clinic. However, I wanted to write a few notes about this because there is a lot of misinformation in the world about what they do, how their services can be accessed, and what this means. Lots of people joke that, “oh, I’ll just pop off to Dignitas if it gets too bad!” without really meaning it, or knowing what that means.

The first, and perhaps most important point, is that you can’t just “go to Dignitas” when you feel like it. For an assisted suicide, you must have a terminal condition and/or be able to demonstrate that your life is intolerable with no prospect of improvement. This becomes very difficult in cases complicated by mental conditions such as depression (they are not able to help depressed people to kill themselves, although one could question whether, if someone has been awfully depressed for 30+ years, with no prospect of relief, our world is humane in insisting that such suffering be persisted.) It takes about three months, as well, to do the paperwork and associated administrative duties. So it’s not really something you can just rock up for at the last minute. It takes planning and determination to go through with this. Most people do not take up an assisted death, despite it being the thing for which Dignitas is most famed. It’s also not cheap, at around £8,000 total. For the record: I’m not planning on/hoping to avail myself of this any time soon.

The second point is that much of Dignitas’s operation is centred around the legal right to ensure that medical treatment is handled in the way that you wish. The organisation will fight, on your behalf, to ensure that medical professionals follow the instructions of your “living will”. I have stipulations for certain thresholds of life quality, beyond which I do not wish to be resuscitated. This will be deeply personal and specific to individuals. It is by no means passing a comment on the value of someone else’s life to say that, personally, I would not wish to continue at that point. Although, that said, these whole debates become ensnared in questions of euthanasia and disability rights. It is my view that I wish to have the choice as to when my own life will end and under what conditions I will receive care. This does not extend to any judgement of anybody else.

The third point is that you have to be a member of Dignitas for any of these services to take effect. This requires a one-time joining fee and an annual subscription membership. So, again, there is pre-planning required if you are to join up. The joining process takes time. It also requires conversations with your relatives and loved ones to ensure that they understand and respect your wishes.

I believe in open and frank conversations about death and dying where we can. We will all have to face it. I also believe in self determination of one’s end, if this is what a person wants. Who knows what mine will be like. I’m not especially keen to find out. But one day I must. Having Dignitas behind me feels empowering in the face of it.