‘Suicide Tourism’ to Switzerland has Doubled Since 2009

(Courtesy:  Hansueli Krapf )

(Courtesy: Hansueli Krapf )

The law on assisted suicide in Switzerland isn’t clear, according to a paper published in the journal Law, Ethics and Medicine this week. That’s why, the authors say, people from other countries are traveling to the state of Zurich for the “sole purpose of committing suicide.”

They’re called suicide tourists.

Between 2008 and 2012, 611 “tourists” came to Switzerland for assisted suicide, according to the published analysis. They arrived from 31 countries around the world, though the majority were from Germany and the United Kingdom.

“In the UK, at least, ‘going to Switzerland’ has become a euphemism for (assisted suicide),” the study authors write. “Six right-to-die organizations assist in approximately 600 cases of suicide per year; some 150-200 of which are suicide tourists.”

This published paper is the result of a pilot study completed for a larger project on assisted suicide in Switzerland being done by experts at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Zurich.

Of the 611 assisted suicides identified during the four-year study period, just over 58% were women. The patients’ ages ranged from 23 to 97, researchers found, but the average age was 69. Close to half of the patients had a neurological disease. Others stated they had cancer, rheumatic disease or cardiovascular disease. Many had more than one condition.

In all but four cases, the assisted suicides were done using sodium pentobarbital. A fatal dose of this drug causes the patient to slip into a deep coma, according to DIGNITAS, a Swiss right-to-die organization that was involved in most of the identified cases.Sodium pentobarbital paralyzes the patient’s respiratory system, causing him or her to stop breathing.

The total number of suicide tourism cases dropped from 123 in 2008 to 86 in 2009. But the number of cases doubled between 2009 and 2012, to 172.

Assisted suicide laws around the globe are in flux as countries debate the pros and cons of allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients, or patients in a lot of pain, die.

In Switzerland, the study authors write, there are no rules to regulate under which conditions someone can receive assisted suicide, though medical professional codes allow it in certain circumstances.

In Germany, there is no formal legal language in the criminal code about assisted suicide, but doctors are not ethically allowed to help someone commit suicide — and can be held criminally responsible for not helping a patient if they witness him or her going unconscious.

In the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, assisted suicide is illegal, though recent cases have been presented to high courts.

“If Switzerland is happy to continue providing the facility then, however intellectually dishonest it may be to allow her to siphon of all our own English pain, fear, angst and debate, is it likely to do less harm overall than introducing any conceivable assisted suicide law into England,” medical lawyer Charles Foster wrote in a commentary accompanying the new journal study.

An international survey of 12 European countries found the majority of people favor legalizing assisted suicide, according to the study authors. This seems to match opinion in the United States, where four states — Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont — allow assisted suicide.

But others have argued that legalizing assisted suicide is not addressing the real issue, which is the need for better palliative care, and that assisted suicide laws would put vulnerable populations at risk.

Alison Twycross of London South Bank University, in an editorial accompanying the new study, writes that advocates for assisted suicide often have a friend or relative who experienced a long, painful death. “So the issue,” she writes,”may be a need to provide good end-of-life care.”

“We need to start asking questions such as: Is it appropriate to give antibiotics to a terminally ill patient who develops a chest infection? It is possible that a tendency to carry on with curative treatment even in those clearly dying explains the general public’s support for (assisted suicide).”

Twycross cites data from Oregon that suggests regulations put in place when assisted suicide was legalized are not always followed.

“Autonomy is important,” she writes. “But it could be that, in matters of life and death, you cannot create freedom for the few without taking away adequate safeguards for the many.”

3 comments

  • Scott Neilson

    During my 16 years in England, I spent three years (1995-98) working as a caregiver – living with and caring for several elderly people suffering from advanced dementia. I saw first-hand how this disease leaves its victims trapped in a truly terrifying, living hell – with no way out except fading slowly and somewhat agonizingly into a merciful death. I often felt my charges were closer to anxious zombies than human beings – and did often wonder about the ethics of prolonging life as long as possible under those circumstances.  

    My time as a carer left me decidedly unwilling to experience that kind of ‘life’ myself. As such, I can say hand on heart that the day I’m diagnosed with dementia is the day I start making moves to check out. When it comes that kind of illness, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. 

    In fact, maybe we should be a little more like Latin America – where people appear to embrace and celebrate death rather than attempting to ignore it and lock it away behind closed doors, as westerners seem inclined to do?

    Raising awareness
    This year, I self-published The Carer, a short e-novel based on my time as a live-in geriatric nurse. Described as a “gritty urban thriller with a social conscience”, The Carer offers a “Faustian tale of elder abuse, patricide by proxy and the corrosive effects of power.” You can buy The Carer for USD0.99 from Amazon and all other major ebook retailers. 

    Scott Nelson
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

  • Sue

    After watching my father fade away from dementia and Parkinson’s and now watching my mother go through the same thing, I certainly understand where Mr. Nelson is coming from. I hope if I am ever diagnosed with one of these horrid diseases I have the strength to take my own life and save my family from having to take care of me when I can’t do it myself. My mother’s body is in perfect health, physically she probably has another 20 years in her, mentally, she has 1 -2. Do we still love her…..of course we do. Will we do everything we can for her..of course we will. It is heartbreaking to know, though, soon she will have no idea who we are. She will still enjoy seeing her grandchildren, she just won’t know they are hers!

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 889 other followers