Analysis of legal assisted suicide in Switzerland

An extensive survey of assisted suicide in Switzerland between 2003 and 2008 has found that the most vulnerable people are women, people who live alone or people who are divorced. People who ask for assisted suicide tend to be wealthier and better educated.

The results have been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The authors, from the University of Bern, conclude that disadvantaged sectors of the Swiss population are not more vulnerable to assisted suicide, because relatively fewer low-income people take advantage of it. Their principal recommendation is that the government should require better statistics.  

However, other interesting findings also emerge.

* Fewer people with a religious affiliation, especially to the Catholic Church, seek assisted suicide. “The association with religion may reflect greater social integration among the religious as well as social norms and dogma,” they say.

* The existence of right-to-die associations might possibly be increasing demand for suicide. Although one-third of doctors said that they had been confronted with a request for suicide, only 6% of then actually participated without the involvement of a right-to-die association.

* The right-to-die associations are not following the law, but the authorities do not seem to be reacting. “In a substantial minority of death certificates (16%), no underlying cause of death was recorded, despite the fact that only those who suffer from an incurable illness, intolerable suffering or a severe disability are eligible for assistance by the associations.”

* The authors believe that their data may disprove the danger of a “slippery slope” because lower socio-economic groups are less vulnerable than the wealthier and better educated. However, if the time frame encompasses the 1918 law on assisted suicide, the “slippery slope” seems more plausible.

Nowadays, Swiss assisted suicide is “marketed” as a remedy for an unendurable disability and an alternative to the pain of terminal illness. However, that is not why the legislators of 1918 proposed it and the legislators of 1937 approved it. They removed penalties for assisting a suicide if the motivation were altruistic. But, surprisingly for our generation, health was not a consideration. Legalised assisted suicide was for people suffering the pain of wounded honour or disappointed love.

But in 1982 two non-profit associations, one for French speakers, Exit Suisse Romande, and one for German speakers, Exit Deutsche Schweiz, were formed to help their members die. These were followed by EX International in 1996, which helps foreigners, and Dignitas in 1998, which helps both Swiss and foreigners. What began as a policy in the spirit of The Sorrows of Young Werther ended up as industrial death.  

This article is published by Michael Cook and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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