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The Atlantic has a fascinating — though not wholly sympathetic — article on Dignitas and its founder Ludwig Minelli.

I have written on Dignitas before. They believe that people have an absolute right to die on their own terms and they help some of those people (those suffering from a terminal disease) achieve it. There are all kinds of horror stories associated with botched suicide attempts — people who have been paralyzed for life, or those who suffered a extended painful death weeks later. Dignitas helps those who have decided to take their life do so with dignity.

Switzerland’s libertarian law on the issue certainly helps:

Assisted suicide is also legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as well as in the American states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But in all those places, the practice is restricted to people with incurable diseases, involves extensive medical testing and consultation with physicians, and requires that applicants be permanent residents. By contrast, Switzerland’s penal code was designed such that, without fear of prosecution, you can hand someone a loaded pistol and watch as he blows his brains out in your living room. And there is no residency requirement. There are only two conditions: that you have no self-interest in the victim’s death, and that he be of sound mind when he pulls the trigger.

Minelli is passionate about the cause. He views himself as fighting for a fundamental human right, and he does not care who he offends in the process. His employees mostly agree.

“Minelli always tries to motivate people to make more of their lives,” he continued. “That’s why I work for him, his human approach.”

But Dignitas is concerned with not life but death—a fact Luley not only accepts, but promotes with enthusiasm. “Suicide is not bad,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to end your life. Sometimes life is great, sometimes life is shit. I have the right to say that I’m pissed off with my life, and I want to end it.” Fine, I said, but why involve others in your self-destruction? Why not just sit in the garage with the engine running?

Luley smiled. Late-model cars won’t do the trick, he said. In the early 1970s, auto manufacturers began installing catalytic convertors that filter out as much as 99 percent of the carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes. You might cough, but you’re not likely to die. Other do-it-yourself methods can be even more problematic. Luley described some of the people who, having failed in their own suicide attempts, had contacted Dignitas to finish the job. “One lady jumped eight stories down to a paved parking lot. Now she is in a wheelchair. Then there was a man who shot himself in the face, but survived. Another leapt in front of a train and lost both his legs.” Dignitas exists to prevent these outcomes, to see to it that those wishing to kill themselves may do so without fear of pain or failure. The fact that most people lack legal access to a death like this is the group’s organizing principle. “Our goal is to make ourselves obsolete,” Luley said. “It should no longer be that one has to travel from his home country to Switzerland to end his life.”

Assisted suicide — suicide in general — carries a stigma today. (It didn’t two thousand years ago when it was normal for Athenians to drink hemlock when they viewed their life had not sufficient meaning left.) Minelli and his organization are fighting for the right to do with one’s life as one wishes, and end it when one wants. He is a brave man, and while not many share his ethical beliefs, I happen to do so completely.  To me, Dignitas represents freedom as few other things do.

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It is a controversial, much maligned organization. Lots of people find their work loathsome. What they do is illegal in almost every other country of the world.

Dignitas. It’s a beautiful name. And they do beautiful work. To me, they represent freedom as few other things do. Imagine a world where organizations like Dignitas aren’t an exception but a common sight in every major city. A world where the concept has been taken even further: anyone capable of coherently expressing their wish can end their life with dignity at the time of their choice for any reason whatsoever.

Such a day is far away. So, till then, let us celebrate the existence of a group of professionals who care enough about others that they help them exercise their most fundamental right; one that society has always denied them.

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