Why assisted suicide is 'normal' in Switzerland

Growing number of people sign up for assisted suicide

The barbiturate Pentobarbital is taken at home by people who wish to die Keystone

Every year, thousands of people become members of Exit, the largest assisted suicide organisation in Switzerland. Last year was no exception, with 10,078 new members signing up. If they fulfil certain criteria, members can use the organisation’s services when they decide the time is right to end their life.

This content was published on February 14, 2018 - 12:30
  • Exit has 110,391 members in German-speaking Switzerland and in Ticino, and 26,205 members in French-speaking Switzerland. 
  • 734 people ended their lives using Exit’s services in 2017, compared to 723 the year before. 

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What is an assisted suicide organisation?

The first organisations supporting people in exercising their ‘right to die’ were set up around 35 years ago in Switzerland. They include ExitExternal link, DignitasExternal link, Ex InternationalExternal link und lifecircleExternal link. The groups campaign for and directly support people who want to die at a time of their own choosing.

What’s the law on assisted suicide in Switzerland?

Swiss law tolerates assisted suicide when patients commit the act themselves and helpers have no vested interest in their death. Assisted suicide has been legal in the country since the 1940s.

What are the conditions a person must fulfil to qualify for assisted suicide?

The person who wishes to die must:

  • know what they are doing
  • not be acting on impulse
  • have a persistent wish to die
  • not be under the influence of any third party
  • commit suicide by their own hand

While Dignitas will also assist people from abroad, Exit will only support a citizen or permanent resident of Switzerland in taking their own life.

Furthermore, both Exit and Dignitas impose other restrictions. They will only provide their services to people with a terminal illness, those living with extreme pain or “unbearable” symptoms, or with an unendurable disability. 

But some people want to change this.

What kind of people are members?

In Exit, for example, most people who choose assisted suicide are women (60%). The average age is 78.1 years, up from 76.7 years in 2016.

The most common conditions for which people sought Exit’s help were terminal cancer, age-related multiple illnesses as well as chronic pain.

Most of Exit’s patients came from the Zurich area (where the organisation is based), followed by the cantons of Bern, Aargau, St Gallen, Basel City and Basel Country.

How common is assisted suicide?

The number of requests Exit received in 2017 from people thinking about assisted suicide was about 3,500 – that’s 1,000 more than in 2014. Exit considered 1,031 of those requests, compared with 991 in 2016.

Assisted suicides remain rare, however, accounting only for about 1.5% of all 66,000 deaths in Switzerland each year, according to Exit.

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