Prosecutor seeks to outlaw "suicide tourism"

This room in Zurich was the final destination for dozens of foreigners last year Keystone Archive

Zurich’s public prosecutor is drafting legislation that would restrict assisted suicide to Swiss residents.

This content was published on February 26, 2004 - 21:29

Under the proposals, organisations would be banned from offering the service to foreigners, who have been travelling to the city in increasing numbers to die.

Andreas Brunner says he wants to put an end to a practice which has earned both the canton and Switzerland unwanted notoriety.

Brunner says the need for cantonal legislation is all the more urgent since the Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher, decided earlier this month that a federal law on assisted suicide was no longer a priority.

“It’s an unfortunate decision,” Brunner told swissinfo. “But I think if Zurich takes the lead, then the federal authorities will probably show more interest.”

He expects to submit his plans to Zurich’s cantonal government this spring.

Widespread practice

Four organisations in Switzerland take advantage of the country’s liberal laws on assisted suicide by helping people to take their own lives. But just one, Dignitas, has been offering its services to foreigners.

The number of people from abroad seeking help from Dignitas has risen steadily since it opened a small apartment in Zurich in October 1999.

In 2000 only three foreigners travelled to Zurich to die; last year 91 foreigners made the trip.

This increase has lead to talk of “suicide tourism”. In 2003 Dignitas helped just two Swiss citizens to take their own lives.

The prosecutor admits that people come to Switzerland to die because assisted suicide is outlawed in their homeland.

“I think, though, that if they had the choice, they would rather die in their own country,” he added.

Grey area

Assisted suicide is when a doctor provides a patient with the means to end their own life; however, a doctor does not administer the drugs. Under Swiss law, the patient must be able to carry out the final act on their own.

However, Brunner fears that organisations offering assisted suicide are pushing the legal boundaries.

“Anyone can set up one of these organisations,” he said. “We need a structure so we can have some kind of overview.”

In a recent case, an assistant actually helped a person to drink a fatal dose of barbiturates.

“How can you be absolutely sure that the person wanted to die at that time,” said Brunner. “Is swallowing the drugs proof enough, because otherwise we are talking about a penal offence.”

Doctors have also expressed fears that mentally ill patients who are not capable of making a rational decision, as required by law, have been ending their lives.

Death wish

Another concern is that it is extremely difficult for the authorities to ascertain whether a person from abroad has expressed a wish to die for some time and that this has been documented.

“People are only here for one day before they die,” the prosecutor told swissinfo. “We know nothing about them and we can’t say they had a long-term desire to end their lives.”

The prosecutor’s proposal, besides limiting assisted suicide to Swiss residents (or even possibly canton Zurich), also includes demands for the regulation of organisations active in the field, guidelines for training helpers and the sharing of administrative costs between the canton and organisations.

Each investigation of an assisted suicide costs the canton between SFr3,000 ($2,428) and SFr5,000. The bill came to SFr273,000 last year for foreigners alone.

No need

Ludwig Minelli, the general secretary of Dignitas, believes the prosecutor’s project is unnecessary.

He declined to talk to swissinfo but in an interview with a Swiss newspaper he said that current regulations were sufficient.

“The need to have a doctor’s prescription to get the drug and an official inquiry after each death should be enough,” he told the “NZZ am Sonntag”.

Minelli said Brunner’s proposal was nothing less than a campaign targeting his organisation and he has threatened to challenge any new legislation in Federal Court.

“If this law were to pass, it would contravene the right to privacy as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights,” he added.

The proposal’s biggest weakness is that it would only be a cantonal law, and assisted suicide organisations could still offer assisted suicide elsewhere in Switzerland.

Brunner says he is well aware of this, but adds that if the federal authorities aren’t prepared to legislate, then Zurich has no choice but to go it alone.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

Four independent organisations deal with assisted suicide in Switzerland.
Dignitas is the only that caters for foreigners.
In 2000, just three foreigners travelled to Switzerland to die, while 91 did so last year.
These deaths cost canton Zurich at least SFr273,000.

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In brief

Active euthanasia is outlawed in Switzerland, whereas assisted suicide exploits a legal grey zone.

Trained councillors are allowed to prepare a lethal dose of drugs, but are not permitted to administer it.

A recent study by the University of Zurich found that seven out of ten terminally ill people in Switzerland ended their lives through some form of euthanasia.

In one in three case, passive euthanasia was applied, with the doctor cutting off life-support systems.

The Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences has also told doctors they can help terminally ill patients die under certain circumstances, admitting that assisted suicide can be comprehensible.

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