Europe urged to confront euthanasia taboo

Some Council of Europe members vehemently oppose Marty's proposals Keystone

A Swiss parliamentarian has called on European governments to decriminalise assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia.

This content was published on April 27, 2004 - 19:02

Dick Marty presented his controversial report on euthanasia to the Council of Europe on Tuesday in the face of strong opposition from some countries.

Unveiling the text in Strasbourg, Marty appealed for the eventual decriminalisation of both active and passive euthanasia in Europe - under clearly defined conditions.

Only two European countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, have already taken this step.

Although euthanasia is illegal in Switzerland, the authorities often turn a blind eye to cases of assisted suicide.

All forms of euthanasia - active euthanasia, when a doctor administers lethal drugs to a patient; passive euthanasia, when medical treatment is withdrawn; and assisted suicide, where doctors supply terminally ill patients with legal drugs - remain largely taboo in Europe.


But Marty insists that debate must be launched on the subject because the practice is widespread.

“Today, there is a notable and worrying discrepancy between the reality, which has been documented in only a few reports, and the legal system,” he said.

According to a study conducted last year in six European countries, including Switzerland, between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of terminally ill patients use some form of euthanasia to end their lives.

But the medical profession remains largely silent on the topic for fear of legal, ethical and religious repercussions.

However, last year the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences performed a U-turn and told doctors they could help the terminally ill die but only under strict conditions.

“Only a very few people are actually prosecuted [for this] in Europe,” Marty told swissinfo. “This shows that there is either a lack of transparency or a lot of hypocrisy about this topic.”


“The Netherlands and Belgium, which had the courage to adopt regulations, have been accused of introducing euthanasia,” added Marty.

“But, in reality, they introduced mechanisms that made euthanasia more difficult, since it became more transparent and subject to tighter control.”

Marty says it is time to stop considering doctors who carry out euthanasia as murderers.

But he believes the final decision to carry out euthanasia should not be left in the hands of a doctor, as often happens in Switzerland.

The parliamentarian wants the final decision to be left to an ethical committee and for the practice to be regulated by law. He argues that this would stop the system being abused.

Under attack

Marty’s proposals have been accepted by a narrow margin by the social, health and family affairs committee of the Council of Europe. But they have been rejected several times by the parliamentary assembly.

He says there is a split between the largely more liberal northern and western Europeans, and their more hostile southern and eastern counterparts.

But the Swiss parliamentarian says he has been astonished by how much bad feeling the topic has stirred up over the past few months.

“I have actually been accused of supporting eugenics or wanting to reintroduce gas chambers,” he said.

“Probably they hadn’t even read my report, which only suggests a possible way forward,” he added.

In his report, Marty calls for European governments to carry out an in-depth analysis of the situation in their countries and to use this information to start discussing euthanasia.

The report also suggests that governments should eventually consider the possibility of decriminalising euthanasia when there are no alternatives and only when a patient makes a responsible, consistent and conscious request to do so.


To avoid the report being rejected by the parliamentary assembly, Marty chose not to submit it to a vote.

Many members are worried about the risk of abuse if euthanasia is decriminalised. Others find that the practice is incompatible with the fundamental right to life, religious doctrines or with professional medical ethics.

But Marty insists the topic will not go away. Both the Netherlands and Belgium took several decades before deciding to create regulations, he says.

“It’s a problem which touches extremely important values and also our daily lives,” said Marty. “Almost every one of us is confronted sooner or later with the long illness of someone you know or the long-term suffering of a parent.”

“In these cases, one realises the need to at least talk about this problem and that it is hypocrisy to continue in silence.”

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli (translation: Isobel Leybold)

Key facts

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949, the oldest political body of its kind in Europe.
Its seat is in Strasbourg, France, and it has 45 member countries.
Among its objectives are the protection and promotion of democracy, human rights, social cohesion, security and cultural diversity.
It has granted observer status to five countries - the Vatican, the United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico.

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In brief

Euthanasia is divided into several categories in Switzerland:

Direct active euthanasia - murder with intent, with the aim of reducing the suffering of a patient, punishable by law even if the victim has requested it.

Indirect active euthanasia - supplying substances to alleviate suffering with the secondary effect that they could reduce lifespan. Not regulated by the law.

Passive euthanasia - when medical treatment is withdrawn. Not regulated by the law.

Assisted suicide - punishable only if carried out with ulterior motives.

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