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Experts call for clear euthanasia rules

Assisted suicide is tolerated under Swiss law

(Keystone)

Assisted suicide should remain legal in Switzerland, according to a government advisory committee.

But experts want the authorities to monitor closely organisations which offer such services.

The Advisory Committee on Biomedical Ethic said groups such as Exit or Dignitas, which help people to commit suicide, should be able to continue to operate legally under certain conditions.

They added they saw no reason to exclude foreigners from assisted suicide in Switzerland.

"The increase in 'suicide tourism’ to Switzerland is not problematic from an ethical point of view," said commission member Margrit Leuthold.

There is anxiety that Switzerland might gain a reputation worldwide as a centre for people wishing to take their own lives.

The number of foreigners travelling to the country to commit suicide has surged in recent years, according to Dignitas. Three suicide tourists used its services in 2000; this jumped to 91 in 2003.

Committee members were in favour of allowing assisted suicide to take place principally within hospitals and homes.

They added that the mentally ill should be barred from such a service if the desire to die was a symptom of a psychological illness.

New law

The latest report was commissioned by the Swiss parliament, which is considering drawing up proposals for a new law on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Active euthanasia is illegal in Switzerland while assisted suicide is not.

In the latter, the patient has to physically carry out the final act without outside help.

Euthanasia is defined as administration of a lethal drug by a doctor or medical staff.

Control

The committee also recommended increased monitoring of groups, which offer assisted suicide and called on the authorities to ensure that such organisation adhere to a set of legal criteria.

It warned against making assisted suicide a routine matter and called for more efforts to prevent suicide.

It was alarmed that more and more terminally ill patients were concerned that they could not afford healthcare or were a burden for their families.

A report by Zurich University in 2003 found that Switzerland had one of the highest rates of euthanasia and cases of assisted suicide among terminally ill patients in Europe.

The number of cases of assisted suicide rose significantly at the beginning of the 1990s but has now levelled off.

In 2002 there were 137 cases of assisted suicide, accounting for ten per cent of all suicide cases in Switzerland.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

While Swiss law prohibits killing a person on request, it tolerates assisted suicide where the act is committed by the patient and the helper has no direct interest.

In Europe, only the Netherlands and Belgium permit taking the life of a person who wishes to die.

There is a legal grey zone between passive euthanasia (withdrawing medical treatment with the deliberate intention of causing the patient’s death) and indirect active euthanasia (giving a patient a palliative that could lead to death).

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