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Terminally ill British couple die in Switzerland

(Keystone)

An elderly husband and wife have become the first terminally ill British couple to travel to Switzerland to die, their family said on Thursday.

Peter and Penelope Duff, aged 80 and 70 respectively, had both been suffering from cancer. They kept secret their plans to travel to the Dignitas clinic near Zurich, where they received help with assisted suicide.

The couple died on February 27. They had told friends and neighbours they were moving out of their home in southern England to spend their final years in a second home, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian. Instead they travelled to Switzerland to die.

"This has come as a complete shock," a neighbour said. "We were aware they both had cancer in an advanced stage."

Peter Duff, a leading wine expert, had been stricken with colon cancer that had spread to his liver. For 17 years his wife had battled a rare form of cancer that attacks the digestive system.

"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," their daughter said in a statement.

Debate

Assisted suicide and passive euthanasia is legal in Switzerland and the Duff case is almost certain to spark more debate over the practice in Britain, which has the strictest regulations on the matter in Europe.

It is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment, to assist in the death of another person there. It was not clear whether the Duffs had travelled alone to die in Switzerland.

Sarah Wootton, head of Dignity in Dying, a group that is campaigning to legalise assisted suicide in Britain, regretted that the Duffs could not end their days closer to home.

"This is an extremely sad case of two more terminally ill British citizens being forced to travel to an unfamiliar country to die," she said.

But not everyone agrees the deaths were appropriate.

"This is a desperately sad case of a couple in a state of distress," said a spokesman for Care Not Killing. "However, hard cases make bad law and the fact remains that if euthanasia was ever legalised in Britain, vulnerable people and seriously ill people would come under pressure to end their lives prematurely."

Not the first

Dignitas opened in 1998 and has so far helped at least 868 people, more than 100 from Britain, end their lives.

Last year police investigated the case of Daniel James, a 23-year-old Briton who travelled to Dignitas to die after he was paralysed from the chest down in a rugby accident. His parents travelled with him, which could have been a crime in Britain, but no charges were brought.

The Duffs were not the first British couple to end their lives at the clinic. In 2003 Bob and Jenny Stokes died at Dignitas. Neither was terminally ill.

Switzerland has five assisted suicide organisations which help around 350 people each year. Dignitas is the only group offering help to non-residents. It charges up to SFr4,000 ($3,460) for its assistance, said to cover the costs of autopsies and medical examinations.

Other organisations, including the larger Exit, assist only Swiss residents and usually go to them in their own homes.

swissinfo

Definitions

Direct active euthanasia is taking specific steps to cause the patient's death, such as injecting the patient with drugs. This is usually an overdose of painkillers or sleeping pills.

Indirect active euthanasia is giving the patient a palliative that could lead to death.

Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with the deliberate intention of causing the patient's death.

Assisted suicide is when a doctor provides a patient with the means to end his own life; however, a doctor does not administer it.

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Assisted suicide in Europe

Switzerland: Assisted suicide and passive euthanasia is legal. Active euthanasia is illegal.

Germany and Italy: Assisted suicide is illegal.

France: Passive euthanasia by doctors or relatives will be legal in future. Active euthanasia remains illegal.

Netherlands and Belgium: permit active euthanasia when a person has made clear that they wish to die.

Britain: has the strictest regulations against assisted suicide in Europe. Many Britons come to Switzerland.

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