Expert slams plans to curb assisted suicide

Petermann says some legal aspects should be clarified, notably use of the medicinal substance for assisted suicide Keystone

Government proposals to ban or restrict assisted suicide and the activities of right-to-die groups in Switzerland have come in for criticism.

This content was published on October 29, 2009 - 21:30

Frank Petermann, an expert in medical law in St Gallen, tells that the planned regulations go against human rights and will fail to prevent people from travelling to Switzerland to die.

Right-to-die organisations have also been quick to dismiss the government plans as outdated and patronising.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf presented two draft bills on Wednesday, one of which foresees an outright ban on right-to-die organisations such as Exit or Dignitas.

The other bill would introduce severe restrictions, including the need for two doctor's certificates to prove that a patient is suffering from an incurable and probably fatal illness and that patients are making an informed decision to end their lives.

The aim of the regulations is to limit so called "death tourism", according to the justice ministry.

Assisted suicide has been allowed in Switzerland since the 1940s if performed by someone who has no vested interest in the death. About 400 people committed assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2007 - a third of them came from Germany and Britain. Is there really a need to define legal guidelines to control assisted suicide in Swtizerland?

Frank Petermann: I don't think so. There are certain legal aspects that should be clarified, notably about the use of the medicinal substance for assisted suicide - natrium pentobarbital.

But apart from that, there is no real need to legislate on the matter. What makes you criticise the government's policy on assisted suicide as contradictory?

F.P.: Three years ago, and with another justice minister, the government decided against a law. Now it has changed its mind and says it wants to tackle the issue.

Also there is a lack of suicide prevention despite undeniable facts that the up to 67,000 failed suicide attempts in Switzerland cost about SFr2.4 billion ($2.35 billion) a year.

Another contradiction in my opinion is that the government claims the law is aimed at preventing abuses. But there is no single known case where the current regulations have been violated. As part of the proposals the government suggests an all-out ban of right-to-die organisations. How realistic is this?

F.P.: Well, in a totalitarian state this might be a way to proceed and sometimes I wonder how close we are to such a system.

I'm not convinced at all that the government really favours the option of stricter controls over outlawing right-to-die groups as the justice ministry said.

What's more, a ban would also go against constitutional rights. Would the proposed regulation and controls put an end to suicide tourism and prevent people from other countries travelling to Switzerland to die?

F.P.: No. I have very good reasons to think that the planned regulations could be bypassed. But I'm afraid I can't say more.

The planned policy is similar to the policy the government adopted towards people trying to escape persecution during the Second World War and who were turned away at the Swiss borders.

It is history repeating itself. To what extent are the proposals in line with basic rights?

F.P.: The proposals go against decisions by the federal court and against the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the Swiss constitution. From a legal point of view every human being is free to choose the moment when and the means by which he or she wants to die. Do you agree with groups such as Exit or Dignitas which have slammed the proposals as unjust to chronically-ill patients because they would lose any legitimacy to claim the right to die?

F.P.: It is indeed a very serious flaw in the draft bill, but by far not the only one.

It amounts to perversity. The chronically ill would be condemned to suffer, but you also take away any hope.

Urs Geiser,

In brief

On October 28 the government presented two proposals aimed at restricting assisted suicide.

The aim is to curb suicide tourism – and the activities of organisations offering their services to people travelling to Switzerland to die.

The proposals are subject to a four-month consultation before the cabinet finalises a bill for discussion in parliament.

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Assisted suicide in Europe

Switzerland: Assisted suicide and passive euthanasia ("mercy killing") is legal. Active euthanasia is illegal.

Germany and Italy: Assisted suicide is illegal.

France: Passive euthanasia by doctors or relatives will be legal in future. Active euthanasia remains illegal.

Netherlands and Belgium: permit taking the life of a person who wishes to die.

Britain: has the strictest regulations against assisted suicide in Europe. Many Britons come to Switzerland.

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