By Peter Saunders
Editor’s note. Peter Saunders is CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a United Kingdom-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. This first appeared here.
A proposal to restrict access for foreigners to assisted suicide only to those living at least one year in the canton was rejected by 78.4 per cent of voters.
A second popular initiative launched by fringe conservative parties the Federal Democratic Union and the Evangelical Party seeking a national ban on assisted suicide was rejected by an ever greater majority.
The main right-wing and left-wing parties had campaigned against both initiatives, calling on their supporters to vote against them.
Under Swiss law it is legal to assist a person to commit suicide as long as the helper has no vested interest in the death. It is legal to procure lethal medication for another person but not to administer it. About 200 people commit assisted suicide each year in Zurich.
Dignitas, the only Swiss association that helps applicants from abroad commit suicide, has so far accompanied 1,138 people in taking their own lives. Of these cases, 592 came from Germany, 160 from Britain, 118 from Switzerland, 102 from France, 19 from Italy, 18 from the United States and 16 from Spain.
But another group, Exit, will only help those who are permanently resident in the country – saying the process takes time, and much counselling for both patients and relatives.
An earlier opinion poll had suggested that two thirds of Swiss people were concerned about suicide tourism. However this does not seem to have outweighed the general support for the status quo in today’s referendum.
The controversial Dignitas facility run by Ludwig Minelli, has attracted much criticism in recent years over discarded cremation urns dumped in Lake Zurich, reports of body bags in residential lifts, suicides being carried out in car parks, the selling of the personal effects of deceased victims and profiteering with fees approaching £8,000 per death.
Although most assisted suicides have been carried out for patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease there have also been case reports of people who could have lived for decades ending their lives (including those with arthritis, blindness, spinal injury or diabetes)
Thus far about 160 Britons in ten years – on average 16 per year – have killed themselves at Dignitas. This is a very small trickle compared with the 650 and 13,000 who, on the basis of the 2005 Lords Select Committee report, it was estimated would die in Britain annually under an Oregon or Dutch-type law respectively. The numbers in Oregon in particular have since increased significantly since 2005 and a more accurate estimation now would be 1,200 British deaths annually with an Oregon-type law.
A recent study by Clive Seale at Brunel University found no cases of assisted suicide in Britain itself.
The British Suicide Act is thereby shown to remain fit for purpose. Through its blanket prohibition on all assistance with suicide, it continues to provide a strong deterrent to the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people. It strikes the right balance, is clear and fair and does not need changing.
British parliaments have rightly rejected any loosening of the law here three times over the last five years – in 2006, 2009 and 2010 – on the basis that any change would place pressure on vulnerable people (those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed) to end their lives for fear of being a financial or emotional burden on others.
The Swiss vote means that the small number of British people travelling to Switzerland to end their lives will probably continue but we should continue to resist any calls from pressure groups to weaken the law here in the UK.