Swiss canton to vote on assisted suicide

The people of the canton of Vaud will vote in June on whether to require nursing homes and hospitals to accept assisted suicide on their premises.

The referendum taking place in Vaud on June 17th 2012 may result in the first ever law on assisted suicide being passed in Switzerland. The issue concerns whether or not nursing homes and hospitals should be made to accept the practice of assisted suicide.

In Switzerland, there is currently no law that regulates the practice. Dignitas and Exit, Swiss organizations that offer to assist in the suicides of specific groups, are both able to operate because of a legal technicality: Article 115 of the Penal Code punishes incitement to suicide and assisted suicide for the attainment of selfish ends.

The organization Exit deals only with Swiss citizens, unlike Dignitas, which assists people coming to Switzerland from overseas. Many of the Swiss patients live in nursing homes, Exit president Jérôme Sobel told newspaper Tribune de Genève.

Between 2001 and 2011 Exit assisted in 55 deaths of patients who had been living in nursing homes, each of which resulted in an administrative battle. As a result, Exit decided to launch the current initiative. 

Everyone should have the freedom to choose their own death, Sobel believes.

While many agree with the idea in theory, critics are concerned that enlarging the number of establishments available to individuals seeking assistance could result in a dip in the standards currently provided by Exit.

In response to these concerns, a draft law was prepared which set out strict guidelines as to who may assist in the suicides. In particular, the chief doctor at the home or hospital should check that the patient is suffering from an incurable illness or injury, that the patient is capable of making up his own mind, and that his desire to die persists.

The doctor should also consult with the patient’s caregivers, other doctors and family members. Nursing staff will not be allowed to assist.

It remains to be seen how the people of Vaud will vote. Local politicians were against the draft, but the people may not necessarily concur. Last April, the people of Zurich showed their sympathy to the movement, when 84.5 percent said no to a ban on assisted suicide.

The vote on June 17th will show whether the people of Vaud believe enough in assisted suicide to enact the first law in Switzerland on the issue.

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Switzerland: What is the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia?

While the terms often are used interchangeably, assisted suicide and euthanasia - and the laws that govern them - are quite different. Here’s what you need to know.

A person in a medical coat holds hands with another
Euthanasia and assisted suicide might be spoken of in the same breath, but they are quite different. Here's what you need to know. Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

The terms assisted suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are often used interchangeably – even by media and politicians covering the matter. 

There are however some key differences, both in terms of the legal situation and the practice itself. 

Assisted suicide is where a medical professional, usually a doctor but sometimes a pharmacist or other specialist, provides some form of medication to assist a patient as they commit suicide. 

EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland

Crucially, it is the patient who takes the final step, i.e. by taking a medication or by pressing a switch through which the medication is administered. 

Euthanasia on the other hand is where the medication which ends someone’s life is administered by a doctor or medical professional. 

Euthanasia is sometimes known as voluntary euthanasia, which references the fact that the patient volunteers for the process by providing consent. 

Other forms of medical intervention which lead to death – for instance turning off life support for someone who has been in a long-term coma – do not fit within the definition of voluntary euthanasia. 

The term ‘assisted dying’ is used as a grouping term to refer to both assisted suicide and euthanasia, although media sources – particularly in the United Kingdom – often use assisted dying when referring primarily to assisted suicide. 

What are the rules for assisted suicide and euthanasia in Switzerland? 

The law in Switzerland recognises the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia. 

Euthanasia is not permitted under law in Switzerland, while assisted suicide is allowed for both locals and foreigners. 

While article 115 of the Swiss penal code prohibits assisted suicide for “self-serving reasons” and article 114 prohibits “causing the death” of a person for “commendable motives, and in particular out of compassion for the victim”, assisted suicide for non-selfish reasons is not specifically prohibited as long as certain conditions are met. 

The Swiss supreme court has ruled the following: people must commit suicide by their own hand, for example, by taking medication themselves. A doctor cannot administer a lethal injection without being liable for criminal prosecution.

People must also be aware of actions they are undertaking and have given due consideration to their situation. In addition, they be consistently sure they wish to die, and, of course, not be under the influence of another person, or group of persons.

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

Several other jurisdictions across Europe and the globe also make a legal distinction between the two, although euthanasia is legal in some countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Columbia. 

What is the medical procedure involved?

Most Swiss associations request that patients drink sodium pentobarbital, a sedative that in strong enough doses causes the heart muscle to stop beating.

Since the substance is alkaline, it burns a bit when swallowed.

A professional prepares the needle, but it is up to the patient to open the valve that allows the short-acting barbiturate to mix with a saline solution and begin flowing into their vein.

A video is shot of the patient stating their name, date of birth and that they understand what they are about to do. The camera keeps rolling as they open the valve and the footage is used as evidence that they willingly took their own life.

It usually takes about 20 to 30 seconds for the patient to fall asleep.