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Suicide tourism

May 14, 2011

The residents of Zurich, Switzerland, are going to the polls this weekend to vote on measures which could restrict, or ban, assisted suicide, amid concerns about suicide tourism.

Picture of an elderly woman's crossed hands
Many old people do not want to live with severe infirmitiesImage: Elzbieta Stasik

Voters in Zurich are set to decide the fate this weekend of an assisted suicide law which has led to a growing number of foreign patients coming to Switzerland to die.

The rising popularity of what opponents call "suicide tourism" has led to a push to tighten up Switzerland's liberal laws on the practice.

Seven years ago, Christian Bretscher's mother decided at the age of 79 that she did not want to continue with a life that had been crippled by arthritis. She chose assisted suicide - a decision he supported and does not regret.

"We had the chance to say goodbye to my mother in a closeness that's not usual anymore nowadays. Normally, people die sometime, somewhere, in hospitals far away from their relatives, but for us it was different," said Bretscher.

"I'm very sure that for my mother it was a beautiful way to say goodbye to us, and for me, it was a very beautiful way to say goodbye to my mother."

Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland for decades. There are widely support groups that help organize a death, providing the lethal drug, and often, a place to die. Yet this weekend voters in Zurich are being asked to decide whether or not the practice should continue.

Switzerland not a mecca of death

Craig Ewert in 2008 at a Swiss assisted suicide clinic
An American patient's death at a Swiss clinic three years ago was broadcast by the BBCImage: AP

Out campaigning, Hans Peter Häring, a member of parliament for the deeply religious Evangelical Union, knows his party's first proposal - to ban assisted suicide altogether - stands no chance.

But, the second proposal - to limit it to local people only - does. The reason is that Zurich is becoming uncomfortable with its reputation as the world capital of suicide tourism - offering an assisted death to desperately ill people from across Europe.

"In other countries, assisted suicide is regarded as wrong. It is illegal. So, why in Switzerland are we doing things that are not allowed in other countries? I think it is unworthy of us. It's like our banking secrecy; everyone is asking why we allow that," Häring explained.

Surprisingly, that's a view shared, at least in part, by Switzerland's largest assisted suicide organization, Exit, which already treats only those who are permanent Swiss residents. Bernard Sutter, Exit's vice president, believes European countries are simply exporting their moral dilemmas about dying to Switzerland.

"There are people in other countries who suffer a lot, who do not have a dignified way of dying," Sutter noted. "It is very sad that they have to travel thousands of kilometers to go to a liberal country to die there. Those countries should solve their own problems with dying people. We would be happy if those countries - Germany, Britain, France - would change their laws and liberalize them."

The latest opinion polls clearly show that Swiss voters overwhelmingly support assisted suicide, but that 66 percent are opposed to suicide tourism.

The surveys reflect a growing mood in the country that this is a moral and ethical question which Switzerland has addressed, but that now it's time for the rest of Europe to do the same.

Author: Imogen Foulkes / gb
Editor: Martin Kuebler