Hospitals discuss changing euthanasia rules

Lausanne University Hospital has decided to permit assisted suicide under strict conditions Keystone

Leading Swiss hospitals say they are considering whether to allow assisted suicide to take place within their walls.

This content was published on December 19, 2005 - 22:00

Lausanne University Hospital confirmed at the weekend that it would permit the practice under strict conditions from January 1.

The hospital in western Switzerland said it would allow the voluntary euthanasia group, Exit, to help terminally ill patients who are unable to go home.

Patients wishing to take their own lives must have expressed a persistent wish to die, be of sound mind, suffer from an incurable disease and carry out the final act themselves.

On Monday other leading Swiss hospitals said they were debating whether to allow assisted suicide on their premises.

"We are considering the issue. Our ethics forum discussed it at their last meeting on November 30," Markus Hächler, spokesman for Bern University Hospital, told swissinfo.

"But the whole process will take some time because we have to make sure everyone is involved – nurses, doctors and social workers."

Under discussion

A spokeswoman for Basel University Hospital said its ethics committee had also grasped the nettle but added that it was too early to say what the outcome would be.

She said enquiries regarding assisted suicide had been received in the past but these had always been refused.

Zurich University Hospital said the subject was not under consideration at the moment but would be "in the future".

According to the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS), voluntary euthanasia organisations are prohibited from Geneva University Hospital but the hospital's ethics committee has recommended lifting the ban.

The move by hospitals to address the issue follows efforts by the SAMS and the National Ethics Commission (NEC) to clarify the situation.

Switzerland has liberal laws on assisted suicide and a person who helps a terminally ill patient to die is only likely to face prosecution if they are found to be acting out of self-interest.

Both bodies contacted the cantons in April this year to find out if hospitals had rules in place stipulating whether assisted-suicide organisations were allowed on the premises.

According to the SAMS, none of the cantons had binding legal rules in place, and the majority of hospitals had no guidelines either. Most of those that did have guidelines prohibited entry to assisted-suicide organisations.

Assisted suicide

Dr Margrit Leuthold, secretary general of the SAMS, told swissinfo that the body had yet to adopt an official position on the decision taken by Lausanne University Hospital.

But she said she was in two minds about allowing assisted suicide in hospitals and questioned whether it should be introduced as a general rule.

"There are situations where it does not make sense for terminally ill patients to have to return home because they cannot die in hospital with Exit. This can cause a lot of additional pain and trouble," said Leuthold.

"But an acute-care hospital should be a place where people are treated to become healthy again rather than helped to die. It sends out a dangerous signal and it would also be difficult for other patients."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont with agencies

Key facts

Swiss law tolerates assisted suicide where the act is committed by the patient and the helper has no direct interest.
There are several organisations in Switzerland, such as Exit and Dignitas, which help terminally ill patients choose how to die.
In 2002 Exit helped 137 people kill themselves (10% of the total number of suicides in Switzerland).

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In brief

In July this year the Advisory Committee on Biomedical Ethics said groups such as Exit should be able to continue to operate legally under certain conditions.

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

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.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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