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Denied death in UK, man gets help in Zurich to end life

London, Jan. 20 (Reuters): A terminally ill British man died by assisted suicide in Switzerland today in a landmark case that renews debate on the tough UK stance over euthanasia.

Reginald Crew, 74, from Liverpool, suffered from the debilitating motor neurone disease which had left him paralysed from the neck down.

He was the first Briton publicly to go to end his own life in Switzerland where helping a terminally ill patient to die is not illegal and widely considered a humane act.

The director of the Zurich-based organisation Dignitas, Ludwig Minelli told Reuters that Crew died at 1404 GMT in the company of his wife, Wyn, and daughter.

He said no one from Dignitas was present at Crew’s death, which was due to his swallowing barbiturates.

“They were very sad but they know that this was the way Crew wanted,” he added.

Minelli said doctors had assessed Crew to decide whether he was capable of making the decision to take his own life.

He died in a flat rented by Dignitas in central Zurich.

Crew’s decision to end his life has once again sparked a heated debate over euthanasia, which is illegal in Britain.

A spokeswoman for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) told Reuters that Britain's euthanasia laws were far too strong and urged the government to soften its stance.

“Britain's laws are the strictest in Europe, matched only by Ireland,” she said.“I think it is so sad that terminally ill patients are forced to go abroad.”

Last May, Belgium joined the Netherlands as the only two countries in Europe to decriminalise euthanasia.

VES said that other European countries gave nominal sentences for assisted suicide.

VES said that under British law, Crew’s relatives could face prosecution when they return to England for assisting a suicide, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

The controversial topic was last brought to prominence by British woman Diane Pretty, who campaigned for her husband to be given immunity from punishment if he helped her commit suicide.

Pretty, who suffered from the same muscle disease as Crew, was left paralysed, incontinent and unable to speak in the final months before her death last May.

She fuelled a heated debate on the topic of euthanasia when she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights but her hopes of ending her life painlessly were dashed when the court agreed with the views of a British court and rejected her pleas.

Anti-euthanasia group Alert said of Crew’s decision: “A civilised society does not say ‘yes you are worthless’, but recognises the value of everyone's life, however disabled or depressed a person may be.”

Dignitas, whose director Minelli is a journalist and human rights campaigner, has helped 146 people to die in four years, a spokesman said.

In Australia, leading euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke has helped several terminally ill people end their lives.

He has euthanasia workshops around Australia explaining to people how to end their lives using specialist equipment or drugs. His latest euthanasia equipment is what he calls an “Exit Bag”, a plastic bag with a drawstring which a person places over the head to suffocate.

Australia’s national government overturned the Northern Territory’s 1996 euthanasia legislation recently. Euthanasia is now illegal across Australia and it is illegal to help a person die.

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