Switzerland to Combat 'Death Tourism'

Foreign abusers force Swiss to consider tighter assisted suicide laws.

October 29, 2009, 1:07 PM

PASSAU, Germany, Oct. 30, 2009 — -- Since 1942, Switzerland has been the only place in the world where non residents can go and legally find help to end their life.

But assisted suicide has become a hot topic for the Swiss government recently after a study showed more and more foreigners are travelling to the Alpine country to take their own lives with the help of private Swiss organizations.

Recently the Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf announced she is considering either restricting Switzerland's assisted suicide law in an attempt to cut what she called "death tourism."

"Today somebody can come to Switzerland and already the next day can have an assisted suicide through one of the so-called assisted suicide organizations. This should not be possible," she said.

"About one-third of the 400 people who came to Switzerland to die here in 2007 were foreigners from either Great Britain or Germany, where helping someone to kill themselves is almost always illegal," explains Bernatto Stadelmann, vice director of the Swiss Justice Ministry in Bern.

Switzerland, along with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, are the only European countries where authorities will not prosecute those who assist terminally ill people with suicide. In the United States it is only legal in the state of Oregon.

The Swiss Penal Code condones assisting suicide for altruistic reasons and considers assisting to commit suicide a crime only if the motive is selfish.

Non-government groups in Switzerland offer assisted suicide programs, including organizations like Exit, Ex-international and Dignitas.

Exit is the largest right-to-die association in Switzerland with some 50,000 members according to its website, but only Dignitas, which has 2,000 members, welcomes foreigners. Dignitas helps patients from abroad to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of pentobarbital, a sleeping potion.

Patients must ingest the drug themselves. Those too ill to drink can use a self-induced injection, or a tube through the stomach

Among the 100 Britons believed to have ended their lives with the help of Dignitas are famous conductor Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, and Daniel James, a 23-year-old who was paralyzed from the chest down after a rugby accident in March 2007.

James' parents issued a statement saying he had attempted to kill himself several times already.

"His death was an extremely said loss for the family, friends and those that care for him but no doubt a welcome relief from the 'prison' he felt his body had become and the day-to-day fear and loathing of his living existence, as a result of which he took his own life."

"This is the last way that the family wanted Dan's life to end, but he was, as those of you who know him are aware, an intelligent, strong-willed and some say determined young man," their statement reads.

James' parents added that their son, "an intelligent young man of sound mind" had never come to terms with his condition and was "not prepared to live what he felt was a second-class existence."

"We do not want to restrict the legal rights of our citizens, but we have realized that our country has become a favorite destination for "death tourism" and we are not the least bit interested in that. We also want to make sure that we are not opening for profit making facilities," the Swiss Justice Ministry said in a written statement following up on Widmer-Schlumpf's press conference.

"Suicide must only be a last resort. The government believes that protection of human life must be uppermost. Assisted suicide should be restricted to the terminally-ill and not be available to chronically or mentally ill individuals."

The statement emphasized that the Swiss government is also looking to "prevent organized assisted suicide from becoming a profit driven business."

Widmer-Schlumpf, the justice minister, would like to establish a compulsory period of reflection between the first contact made with an organization and a person seeking assistance to commit suicide.

She also suggested that patients were seen by two different doctors during that time and she called for assisted suicide groups to make sure they would assist only those patients that are terminally ill and close to death.

Dignitas opposes any changes of the current law.

Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli, who founded the non-profit group in 1998, told ABC News, "The proposals by the Ministry of Justice put an inacceptable limitation on the free will of the patients."

"For example, the necessity to have two doctors certify the terminal disease would make it extremely expensive if not impossible for the patient to stick to the rules," he said.

"Furthermore, it is an affront for patients, who suffer from multiple sclerosis or other terminal neurological disease, to suggest they should receive palliative care when it is their free will to put an end to their lives. Those proposals breathe the bureaucratic regimentation of an out-of-touch bureaucracy."

The Swiss cabinet, divided on the emotional issue, has now sent two proposals to the Swiss parliament for a six months legislative process of consultation.

The proposals, to either tighten up regulations or outlaw all forms of assisted suicide, are open for public comment as is standard procedure within the Swiss legal system.

The government then will send a draft law to parliament to decide.

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