The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Switzerland to clarify whether and under what conditions individuals not suffering from terminal illnesses should be helped to end their own lives medically.
The issue came to light through the case of an 82-year-old Zurich woman who is suffering from a serious disease and would like to end her life. However, both a suicide aid organisation and cantonal authorities denied her a prescription for the deadly drug sodium pentobarbital on the grounds that her illness is not terminal.
On Tuesday, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland had violated the woman’s right to a private and family life, guaranteed under Article 8 of the European Human Rights Convention.
The court did not directly charge Swiss authorities with failing to prescribe the necessary life-terminating drugs to the woman; instead, it ruled that the woman suffered because of her uncertain legal situation and therefore Switzerland must more clearly outline its laws on when those seeking suicide assistance may be given sodium pentobarbital.
The court also found that clearer laws will make doctors’ work easier because they would no longer need to fear legal action or negative career consequences when deciding whether to help a patient end his or her life.
Court justices recognised that finding moral and political ground on the issue would not be easy for Switzerland but declared it part of the democratic process.
The court decision was split, with four of the seven justices ruling that a violation of the right to privacy had taken place in the Zurich woman’s case.
The Swiss cabinet ruled in 2010 that sodium pentobarbital could be used in exceptional cases by people who suffered from severe psychological illnesses but that doctors and authorities were not required to prescribe it.
Bernhard Sutter, vice president of the Zurich-based group EXIT, which the woman had consulted for help, said on Tuesday the court ruling for now would not change the fact that his group cannot help healthy people, only those with a hopeless clinical prognosis or who suffer from intolerable pain. But he welcomed the court's call for more legal clarity.
Current Swiss law stipulates that those seeking assisted suicide must be sufficiently informed of the procedure and must be of sound mind. Their decision to die must also be taken without outside pressure and must be well considered and clear.
Over the past decade, the government and parliament have made several attempts to set clear rules on assisted suicide, but they were all abandoned.
News reports about people who travel to Switzerland to die regularly spark heated debate, notably in Britain which has the strictest regulations on euthanasia in Europe.
Swiss law tolerates assisted suicide where the act is committed by the patient and the helper has no direct interest.
Euthanasia, illegal in Switzerland, is defined as administering a lethal drug to a person by a doctor or medical staff.
The Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences issued guidelines to doctors in 2004 laying down for the first time conditions under which they could help terminally ill patients die.
There are several organisations in Switzerland, such as Exit and Dignitas, which help terminally ill patients choose how to die.
Exit, which caters for Swiss residents only, helped a total of 416 people to end their lives in 2011.
Dignitas, Switzerland’s other leading assisted suicide organisation, helped 144 people to end their lives according to 2011 figures.