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Assisted suicide in Zurich's rest homes sparks debate

Does Zurich's decision send the wrong message to old people in Switzerland's resting homes?

(Keystone)

A petition has been submitted to the Zurich city council opposing assisted suicide in the city's government-operated rest homes, as the fierce debate on the issue in Zurich takes on nationwide proportions.

Zurich lifted its ban on euthanasia in homes for the elderly and sick on January 1, sparking an outcry from doctors and religious organisations alike.

Before the start of the year, organisations offering assisted suicide were banned from helping people in nursing homes run by the state. A person seeking such assistance had to leave the nursing home in order to find help privately.

Assisted suicide remains banned in all Swiss hospitals.

A group of 25 doctors and members of Zurich's Christian Democratic party on Wednesday called on the city to re-instate the ban.

They worry that by introducing assisted suicide to the elderly community, it will "become contagious" and that more and more old and sick people will chose death over life.

They also argue that medical professionals, confronted for the first time with assisted suicide, will be subjected to additional stress under the new legislation.

Cecile Ernst, of the Psychiatric Clinic at Zurich's University Hospital, told swissinfo that scientific research suggests "suicide can become an epidemic, particularly in closed communities such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals."

However, supporters of the decision to lift the ban argue that the elderly and terminally ill should have the right to decide for themselves, how and where they want to die.

Michael Allgäuer, of the Zurich health department, told swissinfo "the right to chose about how to live, and even how to die, is very important for Switzerland's old people".

Allgäuer believes the new legislation supports equal rights for all elderly and ill patients by allowing them to choose assisted suicide in both private and government-run homes.

He told swissinfo he doesn't believe the new regulation will send a message to old people that their lives aren't worth living. He said the majority of old people in nursing homes support the bill and that they feel they "are being taken seriously".

Allgäuer said he believes Zurich's decision to allow assisted suicide in private and public old age homes will set an example for the rest of the country by breaking the taboo of silence that surrounds dying and suicide in Switzerland.

by Anna Nelson and Samantha Tonkin

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