Branching Out to Serve a Growing but Dying Market

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

HANOVER, Germany -- Inside a quiet courtyard off Eden Street, next to an auto-repair shop, a Swiss organization opened an office last month to help Germans kill themselves.

Dignitas, a Swiss nonprofit that promotes assisted suicide, has since 1998 been advising people who want to end their lives. Headquartered in Zurich, the group makes it easy for people who want to die -- the terminally or incurably ill, the old -- to take advantage of Switzerland's assisted-suicide laws, the most liberal in the world.

The group has courted foreigners since its founding, spreading information on the Internet and by word of mouth. But now Dignitas has gone a step further by expanding its physical operations outside Switzerland to recruit what it calls "members," or people contemplating suicide.

Last month, it opened a first-floor office in a small apartment building in Hanover, a central German city of about 500,000 people. Five days a week, from behind closed window blinds, volunteers field questions from people interested in arranging their own deaths.

Dignitas already draws most of its members from Germany. As of last month, 253 Germans who made the trip to Zurich either swallowed or injected themselves with fatal doses of barbiturates, with Dignitas's help. The organization takes care of the legal and logistical arrangements, from obtaining the drugs to disposing of the body. If all goes smoothly, members can die the same day they arrive in Switzerland.

Ludwig Minelli, a lawyer and the founder of Dignitas, said the opening of the Hanover field office was a response to strong demand for the group's services. But he said Dignitas had a larger goal in mind: to pressure Germany, the most populous country in Europe, to bow to popular demand and legalize assisted suicide.

"We should break the taboo of discussing suicide," Minelli said in a telephone interview. "For the sake of efficiency, you should be able to offer assisted suicide when this is the best possible solution. We've got to take this problem out from under the carpet and put it right on the table."

Public opinion polls in Germany, where one out of four people is 60 or older, show a large majority in favor of assisted suicide. But proposals to change the law inevitably bring up reminders of the country's dark history under the Nazis, who adopted euthanasia as official policy to kill an estimated 275,000 people with disabilities, many of them children.

"In a country like Germany, where we have a problematic past, it's not such an easy situation. That is the danger of an organization like this," said Elisabeth Heister-Neumann, the justice minister for Lower Saxony, the German state that includes Hanover. "We see such a group as a one-way street to death."

Heister-Neumann said she plans to introduce legislation that would ban Dignitas and similar groups from operating in Germany if they take on a "business-like character" by charging fees to help people kill themselves. Dignitas says it is a nonprofit organization but will not disclose details about its finances. It has billed clients who come to Zurich from $1,000 to $3,000, according to family members and news reports.

Religious groups have denounced Dignitas for dressing up death as a tempting choice for desperate people.

"These people need treatment," said Margot Kaessmann, the Lutheran bishop for Hanover. "They need new possibilities for life. They might take a dangerous shortcut instead of listening to people who love them and take care of them. For me, that's not dying with dignity. That's very sad."

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