Although Switzerland has traditionally been known for its Alps, banks, and neutrality, the country is becoming notorious for a more morbid phenomenon: suicide tourism.
Of about 600 assisted suicides that occur in Switzerland annually, between 150 and 200 are provided to people who travel to the country to die, according to a study published Aug. 20 in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The study’s authors said the phenomenon is unique to Switzerland due to the country’s lack of regulations. Switzerland has yet to pass a law specifying the conditions required for legal assisted suicide, although the European Court of Human Rights recently ordered the state to pass regulations on sodium pentobarbital, the most common suicide drug.
As a result, Switzerland draws suicide tourists from countries with more stringent guidelines. Four of the six assisted suicide organizations in Switzerland offer services to international clients, as long as they meet specific, though varying, conditions. Nearly half of the suicide tourists were German and about 20 percent came from the United Kingdom, where assisted suicide has recently incited political debate.
The U.K.’s House of Lords debated a bill in July that would legalize assisted suicide for “competent adults” who are terminally ill. Some argue legalizing assisted suicide in the U.K. would lower suicide tourism. But others view legalized assisted suicide as a slippery slope toward suicide for reasons other than terminal illness.
Members of Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK), a network for disabled people opposed to assisted suicide, sent letters and emails to members of the House of Lords expressing their opposition to the bill. Although it advanced to committee without a vote, half of the House of Lords voiced disagreement.
“Our hope and expectation is that the Lords will kill the bill at the committee stage,” Kevin Fitzpatrick of NDYUK wrote in a blog post. “We have hope, but we will not rely on that hope alone to defeat the bill.”
In the U.K., the phrase “going to Switzerland” has become synonymous with seeking assisted suicide. Euthanasia advocates argue the high rate of Britons traveling out of the country for assisted suicide provides additional justification for legalizing the practice at home. “It’s clearly unethical to force dying Britons to travel abroad to die through a lack of safeguarded choice in this country,” Sarah Wooton, executive director of the pro-euthanasia organization Dignity in Dying, told The Guardian.
But others, like Dr. Alison Twycross, head of the Department for Children’s Nursing in London South Bank University’s School of Health and Social Care, oppose the proposed legislation due to potential unintended consequences. In an op-ed published in The Telegraph, Twycross equated legalizing assisted suicide to Britain legalizing abortion in 1967: “There were warnings at the time about a slippery slope. And so it has proved to be: Despite various safeguards, we now effectively have abortion on demand.”
Advocates say assisted suicide is an answer to prolonged and painful deaths. Citing findings in Oregon that the majority of people seek assisted suicide due to loss of dignity or autonomy, rather than pain, Twycross argued legalizing assisted suicide would only increase the number of people seeking death for reasons other than high pain levels. “It seems to me that, in matters of life and death, you cannot create freedom (to die) for the few without taking away adequate safeguards for the many,” she wrote. Safeguards protect people like the elderly and disabled from pressure to end their lives.
And legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill wouldn’t stop those seeking euthanasia for reasons other than terminal illness from traveling to Switzerland, argued Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, in a column for National Review. Legalizing suicide for one reason will only lead to others advocating legalized assisted suicide for reasons like disabilities, chronic illness, or mental illness. “If you want to save some lives who will be glad later to be alive because they didn’t have ready access to assisted suicide, don’t make it easy to be made dead. Keep assisted suicide illegal.”