Swiss doctor avoids prison in assisted suicide case

Death is usually induced through a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by a doctor. Keystone / Alessandro Della Bella

A doctor from canton Basel-Country in north western Switzerland was acquitted of murder charges for helping a mentally-ill woman commit suicide.

This content was published on July 9, 2019

On Tuesday, the regional criminal court handed her a 15-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of CHF20,000 ($20,137). The court decided that the 60-year-old woman who wanted to her life was not capable of discernment and that the doctor had acted out of idealism.

The 61-year-old doctor, who is president of an assisted suicide organisation called Eternal Spirit, did not request independent expert opinions as done by similar organisations such as Exit. The woman had initially approached Exit but was not accepted as she needed to provide a medical certificate.

The prosecution relied on a psychiatric report that established that the 60-year-old suffered from severe depressive disorders. The woman was probably aware she had a mental illness but did not want to admit it. This would have resulted in a "biased" testimony of a willingness to die. The prosecution had requested a five-year prison sentence (the minimum for murder) and a fine of CHF10,000.

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 1940. Death is usually induced through a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by a doctor. Ingestion of the poison, whether by drinking it or through the use of intravenous drips or stomach tubes, must be carried out by the person wanting to die. 

A 2006 decision by the Swiss Federal Court ruled that all people of sound judgment, irrespective of whether they suffer from a mental illness, have the right to decide the manner of their death. However, they must retain the capacity to judge the significance of suicide.

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