Profile March 2010

Death Becomes Him

Over the past decade, Ludwig Minelli has helped more than 1,000 people kill themselves and has turned Zurich into the undisputed world capital of assisted suicide. Minelli sees himself as a crusader for what he calls “the last human right”—and he believes that helping more and more people to die advances his cause. Even if you believe in an absolute right to die on your own terms, how far is too far in the quest to secure that right?

More failed legalization bids followed on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning in the 1920s, German scientists led the way in Europe with the establishment of numerous academic centers devoted to eugenics, a burgeoning field of study that, among other things, promoted euthanasia as a means of eliminating physical and mental imperfections from the gene pool. The Nazis were close students of the latest theories. In euthanasia they found the ideal tool to put their policy of “racial hygiene” into action—not only to relieve human suffering, but to bring death to those they deemed “unworthy of life.” The category was broadly defined. By 1945, images from the death camps silenced further discussion of euthanasia, if only for a while.

The Holocaust was under way when, in 1942, Switzerland legalized assisted suicide. (The Swiss have always differentiated between “voluntary euthanasia” and “involuntary euthanasia”; the latter—what the Nazis did—is illegal.) Ludwig Minelli was 9 years old. The son of a house painter, he was the eldest of two boys and two girls. The family lived in Küsnacht, a village of white stucco and terra-cotta on the shores of Lake Zurich. Minelli today is a committed atheist, but as a child he dreamt of becoming a priest, not so much to honor God as to place himself in a position to, as he later put it, “teach people how to think.” As a college student, he flirted with the idea of becoming an actor, but soon abandoned it in favor of journalism. He freelanced for several years, writing about politics for Swiss newspapers, German radio, and international wire services, before being hired on, in 1964, as the first Swiss correspondent for the prestigious German newsweekly Der Spiegel.

Minelli might happily have remained a journalist for the rest of his career but for two life-altering events. Early in his tenure with Der Spiegel, his grandmother died of renal failure. He recalls being at her bedside in the hospital when a doctor came to check on her. “She had accepted that she was dying and asked the physician, ‘Listen, is there anything you can do to make this go quicker?’ The doctor said he was not allowed to, and promised only that he would do nothing to prolong her life. I was very impressed by my grandmother and disappointed that it was not possible to help her to die.”

Several years later, Minelli was reporting on a lecture about Switzerland’s impending ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights. For most people, this would have been a snooze. For Minelli, it was “an electrifying moment,” in which it came to him that the fight for human rights, including the right to a painless death, must be his life’s work. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, he started law school. Four years later, at age 49, he began his new career as a human-rights lawyer.

Minelli’s timing could scarcely have been better. Switzerland’s two Exit organizations were in their infancy, primarily occupied with drafting living wills and distributing do-it-yourself suicide booklets to members in exchange for annual fees. The Zurich chapter began openly assisting suicides in the early 1990s. Minelli signed on as the group’s legal adviser in 1992, but soon grew disillusioned with what he viewed as its overly diffuse power structure. The squabbling of its board of directors convinced him that he would be better off on his own. In May 1998, after a particularly contentious board meeting, he resigned. That night, he drew up the bylaws for Dignitas, installing himself as its “secretary general.” Joined by two other defectors from Exit, he went straight to work and, by year’s end, had helped six people commit suicide, all of them Swiss nationals.

But Minelli’s vision was never confined by lines on a map. “I have always been convinced that the right to die is, in fact, the very last human right,” he says. “Why should I be able to tell a Swiss lady suffering from breast cancer with metastases that Dignitas will help her, but tell a French lady with the same condition just on the other side of the border that we will not?” So it was that, among the five suicides he assisted in the following year, one was an elderly German woman named Maria Ohmsberger, the first foreigner to die at Dignitas. Minelli had crossed the Rubicon. Still, his organization remained little known until November 2000, when Der Spiegel ran a feature-length piece on Ohmsberger’s death. It included her last words: “Oh, what a wonderful way to go.” Soon hundreds of people from around the world were lining up to commit suicide at Dignitas. Today, the group has about 6,000 dues-paying members, some number of whom presumably hope to die in Switzerland when their illnesses become too painful.

On a sunny afternoon last August, I shared a drink with one of them on a hotel terrace in Basel, a medieval Swiss city on the banks of the Rhine. Her name was Jenny Geary. At 61, she had blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair and sat quietly across the table from me, smiling and sipping a spritzer. Her suicide at the Blue Oasis was scheduled for the following morning. “I want to go,” she told me. “I’m happy. It’s a relief that I’m dying.” Jenny and her husband, Richard, had arrived several days before, having driven from their home in the South of England. They had been married almost 42 years, raised two children, become grandparents, and, in their later years, had hoped to travel the world together. But the day before Richard retired from his job as a maritime logistics expert in 2007, a doctor diagnosed Jenny with multiple system atrophy, an incurable neurological condition, similar to Parkinson’s, that impairs movement and the function of involuntary muscles. Patients can linger for months, sometimes years, before dying. The weakened muscles in Jenny’s throat made it difficult for her to speak, and she could walk only with Richard’s help. Still, as I watched her drink her spritzer, it occurred to me that she could still swallow and would therefore have no problem drinking sodium pentobarbital.

Given Jenny’s weakened condition, Richard had made the arrangements with Dignitas, including a series of payments totaling more than $10,000 to Minelli’s organization. Local law requires that foreigners see a physician twice, leaving at least one day between appointments, before a doctor may write a lethal prescription to be administered by a Dignitas escort. The delay is meant to give patients time to reconsider, but in this case had done nothing to change the Gearys’ minds.

Richard explained: “You wouldn’t leave your dog on the kitchen floor when it can’t walk, can’t eat, and can’t go outside to the toilet. Transform one life form to another, and you’ve got Jenny in six months.” He likened their marriage to a long boat ride on a great river. Gradually its banks had narrowed, and now a waterfall loomed ahead. He had a life jacket, she did not. Indeed, before coming to Switzerland, Jenny had considered leaping into the sea from the cliffs near their house in England. She had also thought about the possibility of jumping in front of a train. The latter, she decided, would be unfair to the train conductor, and neither would be good for the family. Instead, having talked it over with their two children, who grudgingly agreed, they settled on Dignitas as the best option. I asked why Jenny had not simply decided to ride out her illness and make the most of the time she had left. Richard suggested it would only cause her more suffering. “The weakest of any herd gets killed by a lion or a tiger. Some animals will kill the weakest of their young. But somehow, because of our intelligence, we go against that, and we perpetuate suffering by keeping people artificially alive … I just feel that, with all our scientific advancements, there has to be a better way of controlling death.” Jenny nodded in agreement. She seemed at peace with how things had worked out. I asked if she felt afraid. “I’m apprehensive,” she admitted. “I’m scared the drink won’t be strong enough.”

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Bruce Falconer, a former reporter for The Atlantic and for Mother Jones, is the associate editor of The American Scholar.

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