An elderly couple have become the first British pair to die together in a Swiss suicide clinic, it was revealed last night.
The retired millionaires, Peter and Penelope Duff, were both suffering from severe forms of cancer when they travelled to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland.
Mr Duff, founder of the Wine Guild of the United Kingdom, had cared for his wife until he was also diagnosed with cancer. The couple moved out of their Georgian mansion in Bath and told friends they were retiring to a second home in Dorset.
They travelled to Switzerland to die together shortly afterwards.
Evan Harris MP, a supporter of assisted suicide, has called for the law to change.
However, a spokesman for the anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing said: “This is a desperately sad and unusual case of a couple in a state of distress.
“However, hard cases make bad law and the fact remains that if euthanasia was ever legalised in Britain vulnerable and seriously ill people would come under pressure to end their lives prematurely.”
Mr and Mrs Duff have two grown up children and were generous and active patrons of the arts in Bath where they lived.
In a family statement released by their daughter, Helena Conibear, 41, said: “Peter and Penny Duff passed away peacefully together in Zurich after a long battle against their terminal cancer.
“Penny had fought a rare cancer, GIST, since 1992 and Peter’s colon cancer had spread to his liver.”
She added: “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.”
Dorset police were unable to confirm whether anyone had travelled with them to Zurich to assist in their dying.
The news of the couple’s suicide comes just a week after multiple sclerosis sufferer, Debbie Purdy lost her legal battle to challenge the law on assisted suicide.
Miss Purdy wants to know under what circumstances her husband could be prosecuted if he helped her travel to a Swiss suicide clinic to end her life.
Judges rejected her request on the grounds that a ruling would effectively change the law against aiding and abetting suicide – something only Parliament could do.
So far around 100 British people are said to have ended their lives in the controversial Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas, leading to calls from pro-euthanasia groups for assisted suicide to be allowed in the UK.
But campaigners say a robust law against the practice is vital. They say allowing assisted suicide would put vulnerable people under pressure to end their lives and would distract from improvements in palliative care.
The British Medical Association (BMA) opposes a change to the law on euthanasia.
Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA ethics committee, said: “The BMA has made it absolutely clear that it does not support any change to laws surrounding euthanasia.”
He added: “The last BMA debate in 2006 quite clearly showed that the profession was against euthanasia.”
Similarly, a spokeman for the Royal College of General Practitioners said: “The college firmly believes that with current improvements in palliative care, good clinical care can be provided within existing legislation.
“Assisted dying has been one of the most debated issues in the history of the college.
“A clear decision has been reached by our council – we do not support a change in legislation that would permit assisted dying.”
Dr David Jeffrey, a leading end-of-life care specialist, warned last year that making assisted suicide legal in the UK would kill patient trust.
He said that while articulate patients were lobbying for a change in the law, he was concerned about vulnerable people “who don’t know where to turn and who feel they are a burden.”
Mr Jeffrey added: “The law has to protect them.”
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”
“A different life”
The Times recently reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human.
She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.