Record numbers sign up to Swiss right-to-die organization

ZURICH (Reuters) - A Swiss organization that helps people take their own lives and defends their right to refuse medical treatment says its membership reached a record high last year after a 20 percent surge in requests to join. Exit, which provides lethal drugs to help the terminally ill die, said on Wednesday its membership rose to 81,015 people in the German- and Italian-speaking part of Switzerland up from 67,602 in 2013. It helped 583 people to die in 2014. The organization attributed the rise to an aging population, rising numbers of patients suffering from dementia, and a greater desire among people to determine the course of their lives. It also said the surge may have been prompted by media coverage of a vote by members last year to extend its services to elderly people who are not terminally ill, such as those suffering from psychological or physical problems. Assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland if performed by someone with no direct interest in the death. It is however illegal for someone to deliver the lethal dose rather than just making it available to the person who wishes to die. Swiss organizations such as Exit and Dignitas have gained international attention as a result. In 2009, prominent British orchestra conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife traveled to Switzerland in order to end their lives through assisted suicide, according to their family at the time. In Europe, euthanasia is legal only in Belgium and the Netherlands. The French parliament is debating a bill that would let doctors put terminally ill patients into "deep sedation" until they die. (Reporting by Katharina Bart; Editing by Tom Heneghan)