Medically Assisted Suicide in Switzerland

It is estimated that one person a fortnight  goes to Dignitas in Switzerland from the UK for an assisted suicide. Dignitas is a non-profit member’s organisation near Zurich whose motto is “to live with dignity – to die with dignity”. Although Dignitas is the best known organisation, Lifecircle near Basle, Ex International in Bern and Associazionale Liberty Life in Paradiso also provide medically assisted suicide in Switzerland for non-Swiss nationals.

Although some other countries have right-to-die legislation, Switzerland is the only country which accepts foreign nationals for a legal medically assisted suicide. In Switzerland assisting suicide is not a crime. For a Swiss doctor to support an assisted suicide by providing a prescription for a lethal medication, the person must be suffering intolerably from a severe illness, and have a medical diagnosis which is documented by doctors and/or clinicians reports. However, there is no requirement for the illness to be “terminal”, nor for any life expectancy limit such as being expected to die within 6 months.

Careful checks are made by the Swiss organisations to ensure that the person requesting the assisted suicide is mentally competent, not suffering from depression, and is acting on their own wish, rather than being persuaded by others.

Note that membership of the Swiss organisation is necessary, and the written application can only be made by the person themselves. The Swiss organisations need to be convinced that applicants are acting freely of their own volition. MDMD can not help with individual applications, though it may be possible for us to arrange a conversation with someone who has accompanied someone else to Switzerland to end their life and is prepared to share their experience.

Advantages

  • It is the only option which provides professional independent counselling prior to assisting suicide to ensure that all other options have been carefully considered and that the person is fully committed to this choice.
  • There is legal access to appropriate medication which ensures a quick, painless exit into sleep and eventual death.
  • A doctor or other experienced person is present to ensure that the procedure is followed correctly.
  • The person who is ending their life can be accompanied by family and friends.

Disadvantages

  • There is a risk of criminal investigation of someone who has assisted another person to go to Switzerland for a medically assisted suicide. However, no one has ever been charged with assisting suicide in this way. The DPP guidelines give clear guidance on the factors that tend towards and against prosecution in cases like this.
  • It involves an often arduous journey to Switzerland for people who are already suffering and who must travel a long way from their home and possibly stay several days in Switzerland to achieve the “good” death that they wish for.
  • Some people, like Jeffrey Spector and Gill Pharoah chose to go to Switzerland to end their lives before they would ideally want to die. They felt they had to go while they were still able.
  • It can be difficult for people to satisfy the Swiss organisations of their poor physical health and mental competence when their UK doctors are wary of knowingly providing the information, in case they are judged to be assisting a suicide. For an example of this, see the story of the mother of one of our supporters, “our mother“.
  • Some people feel that their relationship with their doctor is damaged because they are not free to discuss their options with their UK doctor in case it jeopardises their attempt to arrange an assisted suicide in Switzerland.
  • Many people cannot afford the cost of the Swiss option. The Swiss organisations are non-profit member’s societies and, on request, may be able to reduce or even exempt people living in modest financial circumstances from having to pay for the full costs of their services, which are up to £9,000. In addition to this, travel and hotel costs for both the person going to die and for a companion, can bring the total cost to over £10,000.