Godard’s assisted suicide - not an option everywhere

Franco-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard during the Grand Prix Design awards in Zurich, November 30, 2010. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Legendary Franco-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard was a pioneer in his lifetime - and in his death, by assisted suicide in Switzerland. Four people a day opt for assisted suicide in Switzerland, but in other countries the issue is still controversial.

This content was published on September 16, 2022
with Keystone-SDA and RTS

The news of the iconic filmmaker’s assisted suicide was confirmed on September 13. Godard's legal advisor Patrick Jeanneret later told the AFP news agency that the 91-year-old "had recourse to legal assistance in Switzerland for a voluntary departure as he was stricken with 'multiple invalidating illnesses', according to the medical report".

Assisted suicide in Switzerland

Swiss law tolerates assisted suicide when patients commit the act themselves and helpers have no vested interest in their death.

Exit, the country's leading assisted suicide organisation, accompanied almost 1,400 in 2021. Exit only offers its services to Swiss residents and Swiss nationals living abroad. Other organisations will assist people from abroad, where the practice is forbidden.

In May 2022, the Swiss Medical Association tightened its conditions for assisted suicide. Doctors must now conduct at least two interviews, at least two weeks apart, with the person who wishes to end their life. The patient must prove that his or her suffering is unbearable.

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Death was a topic that frequently featured in Godard’s works. “I want to be immortal and then die,” says the writer played by Jean-Pierre Melville in the film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). And in Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the madman), Jean-Paul Belmondo ties sticks of dynamite to his head.

Godard himself spoke about his own death in 1995 in his documentary film JLG/JLG – Self-Portrait in December, “a monument of a film in which mournful weeping willows suffer in a romantic landscape that celebrates the unshakeable force of nature. Trees and a lake reflect the image of the final season, winter,” as the Le MondeExternal link newspaper described it. In 2004, Godard told the Libération newspaper that he had attempted suicide after 1968, "in a rather fraudulent manner so that people would pay attention to me". He also told Les Inrockuptibles magazine that he had thought of killing himself several times and had hesitated, "out of fear".

>> From the archives: watch Jean-Luc Godard talking about assisted suicide on the Swiss public television RTS programme Pardonnez-moi on May 25, 2014

France: big debate

In France, the issue of assisted suicide is a big topic of debate. On the day that Godard’s assisted suicide was confirmed, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a national debate on end-of-life options that will include exploring the possibility of legalising assisted suicide. This would include regional debates and consultations with the medical profession and parliamentarians.

A 2016 French law provides that doctors can keep terminally ill patients sedated before death but stops short of allowing assisted suicide. Recently, the country's National Consultative Ethics Committee ruled that "active assistance in dying" could be applied in France "under certain strict conditions".

The French president is said to be considering a referendum for the law change, which would be the first since he came to office in 2017.

Elsewhere around the world

Assisted suicide, which involves patients self-administering a lethal dose of drugs, is allowed in ten countries, including Switzerland.

Euthanasia, a process in which a medical professional directly gives the drugs, is currently legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain, Canada and Colombia under certain conditions.

However, people who wish to end their own lives face many obstacles. Most countries that allow assisted suicide limit this option to adults with an incurable disease. Only the Netherlands and Belgium allow for the "right to die", also for people under 18 years of age.

In most countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, assisted suicide and direct active euthanasia remain taboo, mainly for religious or cultural reasons.

Adapted from French by Isobel Leybold-Johnson/sb

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