Investigation Opened into Suicide of British Couple

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - A British couple suffering from chronic but not terminal illnesses apparently committed suicide in Switzerland, sparking speculation that they may have received assistance from controversial pro-euthanasia group Dignitas.

Robert Stokes, 59, was an epileptic while his wife, Jennifer Stokes, 53, reportedly suffered from diabetes and back problems.

Relatives and officials at the retirement community where the couple lived told British newspapers that the pair was not terminally ill. They traveled to Zurich at the end of March and both died on April 1, police said.

The couple lived in the town of Leighton Buzzard north of London, and local police confirmed that the Bedfordshire county coroner was in contact with Swiss authorities about the deaths.

An inquiry was opened April 10, police said, and the county coroner is currently waiting for toxicology tests before ruling on the likely cause of death. Police said the results from the tests wouldn't be available for several weeks.

Assisted suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison in Britain, but Switzerland is generally tolerant of the practice as long as the doctor involved does not benefit financially from a patient's death.

Dignitas refused to comment when reached at their Zurich offices Tuesday.

The group provides terminally ill members with a lethal dose of barbiturates, which they then self-administer. In January, Briton Reginald Crew, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, killed himself with the group's assistance

The case sparked controversy in Britain and led to an investigation by Liverpool-area police, but last week they said charges would not be pressed against Crew's wife.

After Crew's death, Dignitas founder Ludwig Minelli, a former journalist, told : "If a person wants to end his life, he has to do it himself. This is the best way to stop abuse."

"I hope the government and Parliament of Great Britain will learn from this situation," he said.

The Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday that five people arrived in Zurich to commit suicide with the group's help between March 31 and April 5.

Edwin Loescher, a Zurich district attorney, told the paper that the number of suicides was "too many - it's nearly unbearable."

Euthanasia has been a hot-button topic in Britain since the case of Diane Pretty, a Lou Gehrig's sufferer who petitioned the courts for permission to have her husband help her to commit suicide.

Pretty's case went to the European Court of Human Rights, but she was turned down at every level. She died of natural causes in May 2002.

See Earlier Story:
British Man Travels to Switzerland for Assisted Suicide (Jan. 22, 2003)

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