Death Takes a Holiday

Guest Commentary

Politics is often a matter of life and death. There are constant reminders of this, from the war in Iraq to America’s abortion debate. The most telling examples, though, often pass unnoticed. Such an example is currently simmering in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal not only for the Swiss, but for foreigners too, making the nation the unlikeliest of final destinations.

Switzerland’s road to becoming the planned death capital of Europe began in 1918, when the Swiss government declared that, “In modern penal law, suicide is not a crime,” and those “aiding and abetting suicide can themselves be inspired by altruistic motives.” Over the years this sentiment was enshrined in the Swiss penal code, Article 115 of which condones assisted suicide if the assisting person does not profit from the death. Article 115 requires neither the participation of a physician nor that the patient be terminally ill.

This does not mean, of course, that Swiss doctors do not take part in assisted suicides; they simply don’t do so as doctors. The law treats doctors assisting with suicides the same way it treats any other citizen acting in a similar capacity. That is to say, the law does not control their activity in any way as long as they act for “altruistic” reasons.

And there is no shortage of those willing to do this dark work for “altruistic” reasons. A number of organizations were formed to serve the market created by Swiss law, and none of these have been more controversial than Dignitas. Dignitas was founded in 1998 by Swiss human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli, and it is, at present, the only such organization extending its services to foreigners. This raises a host of uncomfortable questions.

Most obvious, the problem of “death tourism” has emerged. The majority of Dignitas’ clients are indeed from beyond Switzerland’s borders. They are unable to kill themselves legally in their home countries, so they trickle into Switzerland looking for an hospitable place to die. Given the Swiss prohibition on euthanasia, one might question how much assistance one might receive. Indeed, the client must commit the final act on his own after being given the means of his own extermination. This can only mean that the people who ultimately take their own lives are fully capable of doing so, yet they cannot find a way to manage it without traveling to a foreign country.

Making matters worse, there are times when they are not even ill … at least not physically. There has been at least one case in which a client falsified medical records in order to present a more compelling case for suicide. There is also evidence that a number of people have sought out the assistance of Dignitas as a result of mental illnesses. Minelli has been remarkably consistent in his defense of Dignitas’ practices. Responding to the case in which medical records were falsified, he asserted that “The doctor’s report … indicated the woman was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver as well as hepatitis. And in any case every person in Europe has the right to choose to die, even if they are not terminally ill.”

Everyone in Europe?

A good part of Europe disagrees … which is the very reason Dignitas exists at all. But that only tells part of the story. As it turns out, even the Swiss seem to have a problem with assisted suicide, if only where the rubber meets the road … literally.

While there seems to be little backlash against policies which decriminalize assisted suicide, people have nonetheless managed to express their displeasure in light of what might be termed the accessories of death. It seems that the constant parade of hearses is too much for some people to bear. And the parade is constant. In 2006, Dignitas helped nearly 200 people end their lives … all in an apartment dedicated to the purpose.

But now Dignitas has lost its lease. And in the country with some of the most liberal assisted suicide laws in the world, they are having trouble finding a new home. Minelli can assert that everyone in Europe has a right to die, but a good deal more people are telling him, “Not in my back yard.”

People are reticent, in the end, to live so close to death’s door, and this is a fair indication that it might be time for the Swiss to revisit their assisted suicide policy. Every rational person knows that a ban on suicide will never end the practice. That does not mean the practice is to be condoned. A good number of the Swiss seem to realize this, and have taken steps to ensure that their own neighborhoods and towns will not play host to what amounts to a suicide factory. If their politicians take notice, perhaps the business of death tourism will itself meet a dignified, if overdue, end.

About James R. Harrigan

James R. Harrigan is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a regular contributor to the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.

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