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Help-to-die group finds no home in Zurich

A room used by Dignitas where patients were helped to die

(RDB)

Terminally ill patients looking for help to die are facing new difficulties as one of Switzerland's best known assisted suicide organisations looks for a new home.

Most affected are patients from abroad, as the Dignitas organisation is the only one in Switzerland to offer this help to non-residents.

In summer Dignitas lost the lease on the flat in a Zurich suburb it had used for eight years. Since then it has moved several times, but has so far been unable to find a permanent home.

In 2006 Dignitas helped around 200 people take their own lives.

On Monday the authorities in Schwerzenbach, near Zurich, refused to allow Dignitas to continue using premises in the village's industrial area.

The Zurich cantonal authorities say that the construction or conversion of a building to be used for assisted suicide needs special permission. Dignitas has appealed against the ruling.

Local residents in the suburb where Dignitas formerly had its premises complained about the number of hearses going to the flat. Other neighbourhoods are equally unwilling to see this traffic.

Foreign patients

Many of those whom Dignitas helps to die have come from abroad because the practice of assisted suicide is forbidden in their home countries. In 2006 more than half came from Germany.

Similar organisations, which include the much larger Exit, only assist Swiss residents and usually go to them in their own homes.

About 20 per cent of people who kill themselves in Switzerland do so with the help of an organisation offering assisted suicide. A maximum of seven per cent of assisted suicides concern people resident abroad.

The Zurich authorities have been calling for a federal law to curb this "death tourism", but Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, who ordered a report on the subject which was published last year, believes that existing laws are sufficient.

Parliament is still to debate the report.

However, it has already had an impact on the work of Dignitas, according to Bernardo Stadelmann, deputy director of the Federal Justice Office.

"Since the publication of the report, Dignitas has apparently had some difficulty in recruiting doctors," he said. "The conditions under existing legislation are in fact very tight."

Dignitas had no comment on this.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Ariane Gigon Bormann in Zurich

Key Facts

Switzerland has five assisted suicide organisations which help around 350 people each year.
Exit has 50,000 members and helped 150 Swiss people die in 2006.
Dignitas has 5,000 members and helped 195 Swiss and foreigners die in 2006.

end of infobox

Assisted suicide in Europe

Switzerland: Assisted suicide and passive euthanasia 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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Definitions

Direct active euthanasia is taking specific steps to cause the patient's death, such as injecting the patient with drugs. This is usually an overdose of painkillers or sleeping pills. This kind of euthanasia is illegal in Switzerland.

Indirect active euthanasia is giving the patient a palliative that could lead to death. This kind of euthanasia is allowed in Switzerland.

Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with the deliberate intention of causing the patient's death and is legal in Switzerland.

Assisted suicide is when a doctor provides a patient with the means to end his own life; however, a doctor does not administer it. Assisted suicide is tolerated in Switzerland.

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