The number of people traveling to Switzerland to take their own lives has doubled over the past four years, according to a new study published in The Journal of Medical Ethics. A prominent right-to-die group located in Zurich has helped attract the attention of a growing number of so-called “suicide tourists” traveling from dozens of countries to take advantage of Switzerland’s more permissive law.
While the other areas of the world that have legalized physician-assisted suicide typically forbid foreigners from traveling there to end their lives, Switzerland doesn’t have an explicit ban on the practice. In light of that unusual policy, researchers from the University of Zurich were curious about how many people were actually practicing this type of suicide tourism. They found that, between 2008 and 2012, more than 600 people from 31 different countries came to Switzerland to die — and there was a particularly sharp uptick after 2009.
Most of the tourists came from Germany, where assisted suicide is considered to be ethical only under certain circumstances, and the United Kingdom, where the practice is outlawed altogether. The group also included 21 people from the U.S. The median age of the foreigners seeking help ending their lives was 69, although the ages of suicide tourists coming to Switzerland ranged from 23 to 97.
Many of those people chose to die even though they weren’t suffering from terminal illnesses. About half the suicide tourism cases involved people with neurological conditions — like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or some kind of paralysis — that aren’t fatal. That likely reflects the fact that Switzerland doesn’t have any explicit rules regulating what types of condition a patient must be in before seeking doctor-assisted suicide. The next most common medical condition among the group was cancer; about one in three people suffered from more than one condition.
The issue of assisted suicide, which has long been controversial among both medical experts and the public, has also recently been back in the news in Canada.
This week, an 85-year-old Canadian woman in the early stages of dementia ended her own life, with her husband by her side, after publishing a personal account of her decision making process online. “Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide,” Gillian Bennett wrote on her blog, Dead at Noon. “All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.” Bennett, who said her dying wish was to get people talking about the often taboo topic of death with dignity, has sparked a widespread conversation about Canada’s current ban on doctor-assisted suicide.
Here in the United States, physician-assisted suicide is legal in just four states: Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Montana. While the issue remains fraught with controversy, evidence from Washington state suggests that most people aren’t rushing to take their own lives in the states where it’s legal. Just 255 people had obtained prescriptions for lethal drugs in the three years after Washington’s law was enacted, and 40 percent of those prescriptions were written for terminal cancer patients.
Most Americans believe that terminally ill patients should be allowed to seek assistance from a doctor to die, particularly if they’re in pain. When the issue isn’t framed in terms of “suicide” — but rather a doctor helping “to end the patient’s life by some painless means” — the public is even more likely to support it.