Switzerland’s “peculiar institution”

By Michael Cook

MountainsWhat is the position of the law on assisted suicide in Switzerland? Journalists often make the mistake of asserting that euthanasia is allowed there. This is not true: only assisted suicide – but this has been legal, astonishingly, since the 1930s. A review article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics by Roberto Andorno, of the Institute of Biomedical Ethics of the University of Zurich, describes how Switzerland gradually became magnet for foreigners who want to commit suicide.

Article 115 of the 1937 Swiss Penal Code states that: “Every person who, for selfish reasons, incites or assists someone to commit suicide, shall be sentenced to imprisonment of up to five years or a fine.” It was very far from the minds of the legislators of the time to promote assisted suicide. They seem to have had in mind situations like Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther — “romantic stories about people committing suicide in defence of their own, or their family’s honour, and about suicides committed by rejected lovers.”

Thus the legislators left two wide gaps in the law. First, no doctor need be involved, and second, there need be no medical condition. Ultimately this gave rise to a number of non-profit assisted suicide agencies. The leading ones are Dignitas, with 5,500 members, and two branches of the group Exit, for French-speakers (10,000 members and German-speakers (55,000 members).

Attempts to regulate the growth of the assisted suicide industry have largely failed. With the law phrased so loosely, the only certain criterion is that the person requesting help must be mentally competent. In 2009 a psychiatrist was convicted for being reckless in helping two people with mental illness to commit suicide.

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In 2011 the government decided that further regulation was largely futile. A total ban was politically impossible and amending the law might make the situation worse. Among other disadvantages it might legitimize the suicide organisations. Instead, the government has decided to promote palliative care and to campaign against suicide.

Editor’s note. This appeared at bioedge.org.