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12 Jan, 2010 05:27

Swiss politicians ponder ban on assisted suicide

Recent proposals to restrict or even ban the practice of euthanasia have emerged in Switzerland, where doctors have been permitted to offer the option not only to Swiss residents but also foreigners.

The number of people coming to Switzerland to seek help in ending their life has been steadily rising. Plans to revise the law on assisted suicide stem from the government’s fears that Switzerland may become a “suicide Mecca.” In the meantime, campaigners are worried that changes to the law could deprive people of their last chance to die with dignity.

Dignitas – a Swiss group that helps people die assisted by doctors and nurses – maintains that everyone has the right to choose when to die. Although the group rarely speaks to journalists, the doors of the organization have been open the terminally ill for more than 10 years.

However, critics say what Dignitas is carrying out is “a murky business.”

EXIT (a group similar to Dignitas) and Dignitas are very commercial,” says Ruedi Aeschbacher of the Evangelical People's Party of Switzerland. “They say they are non-profit, but they make money. And nobody can control them. Nobody can check their books.”

Swiss law punishes those practicing euthanasia only if the person performing the service is pursuing selfish interests.

Dignitas has already helped nearly a thousand foreigners end their lives. Among them a 23-year old rugby player, Daniel James, who was paralyzed after an accident, and British conductor Edward Downes, who was going blind.

Last year the organization even tried to assist in the suicide of a healthy Canadian woman, who wished to die on the same day as her husband.

Bernhard Sutter, a spokesperson for EXIT, says more than half of those who seek the group’s help are not terminally ill. However, EXIT has a detailed review process and a policy not to assist people seeking to end their life due to emotional factors and depression.

Aeschbacher, a Swiss lawmaker, says that when the legislation on euthanasia was first conceived 70 years ago, it did not foresee special clinics helping people die. He says that it is therefore in need of an update.

It terrifies me that Switzerland could make those changes,” says Debby Purdy, who lives in the UK and suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Purdy is not packing her bags for Switzerland, but says she wants to have the option to do so if her pain becomes unbearable.

In Britain anyone helping Purdy to end her life could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.

It’s not that I think it should be an easy option, but I think if people suffer unbearably, only the person who's suffering can decide whether it is bearable or unbearable – doctors can't tell you that your pain is being managed fine. If you're in pain, you're in pain,” Purdy says.

Thus, before the issue of assisted suicide makes it to the inevitable referendum, the Swiss government and the public have a few important questions to answer.