For members


EXPLAINED: What Switzerland’s ‘organ donation’ vote means for you

On May 15th, Swiss voters will decide, along with two other issues, on whether to approve the government’s plan of “presumed consent” in organ transplants. This is what you should know.

Surgeons during an operation. Switzerland's waiting list for replacement organs is long.Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Surgeons during an operation. Switzerland's waiting list for replacement organs is long.Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In the second of four rounds of national referendums scheduled for 2022, the Swiss will go to the polls on May 15 to decide on three issues, including one that would, if passed, improve people’s chances of receiving a donor organ in Switzerland. 

The proposal changes the existing law in favour of ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation. 

 At least this is what the Federal Council and the Parliament claim in their support of the transplant /organ donation law.

This is what’s at stake

As elsewhere, the number of people needing transplants in Switzerland far exceeds the number of available organs.

According to data from Swisstransplant, an organisation mandated by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) to maintain the waiting list of organ recipients and to allocate the organs as they become available, 1462 patients are still waiting for at least one organ. Only 587 people were able to receive transplants, while 72 died while waiting for organs to become available.

As the law stands today, “a transplant is only possible if the deceased person has consented to the donation during his or her lifetime”, the Federal Council explains on its website.

“However, the wish of the person concerned is often unknown. It is then up to the relatives to decide. In the majority of cases, they are against organ donation”.

What is the government proposing?

To increase patients’ chances of receiving an organ, the Federal Council and the Parliament want to amend this legislation to allow collection of organs from any deceased person who did not make their opposition to being a donor known during their lifetime.

“If a person has not objected, it is assumed that they are willing to donate their organs”, authorities said.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

In other words, anyone who does not wish to donate their organs after their death will now have to indicate this explicitly.

Nevertheless, under the proposed law, the relatives of the deceased can refuse organ donation “if they know or suspect that the person concerned would have chosen not to do so. If no relatives can be contacted, no organs may be removed”.

Who is against this law?

A committee composed of various political parties and religious groups argues that  “a conscious and clear ‘yes’ is necessary for any medical intervention. It is inadmissible that this explicit yes is no longer necessary for organ donation”.

Organ donations are only ethically justifiable if the person concerned has given his or her explicit consent during his lifetime, the committee added.

What are the chances of the proposed law to be approved by voters?

According to the latest poll, which  Switzerland’s largest media group, Tamedia, released on Wednesday, 61 percent of survey participants said they would approve the law, while 37 percent would reject it.

Those in favour “believe that sick people would have a better chance of receiving a healthy organ, because the principle of presumed consent would make it possible to increase the number of donors”, Tamedia said.

Opponents, on the other hand, “argue that actively undermining bodily integrity is unethical and even unconstitutional”.
What else will the Swiss vote on May 15th?

The two other issues on the ballot are The Film Act (dubbed ‘Lex Netflix), as well as support for European border guards (Frontex).

You can read about them here:

What is the ‘Netflix vote’ and how could it change TV in Switzerland?

Frontex: How Switzerland’s ‘border vote’ on May 15th could impact travel

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For members


How ordinary citizens can try to change the law in Switzerland

A unique feature of the Swiss system of direct democracy is the ability of any citizen, or a group of citizens, to impact the political process by creating new laws or changing the existing ones. Here's how.

How ordinary citizens can try to change the law in Switzerland

Switzerland’s political system is unlike any other country’s: here the people — rather than lawmakers — have the power to shape local and national policies.

This is done through referendums or popular initiatives, the two backbones of Switzerland’s centuries-old tradition of direct democracy.

On average, the Swiss vote four times a year on several issues at a time — more often than citizens of any other nation.

What is the difference between a referendum and an initiative?

Basically, referendums are about approving new laws or changing the existing ones.

The first is called a mandatory referendum, when all legislation and constitutional amendments approved by the parliament must then be accepted (or rejected) by the voters. 

With an optional referendum, any group or individual can contest an existing law, by gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days. The petition must include names and addresses of Swiss citizens only.

Popular, citizen-driven initiatives, on the other hand, are intended to create new laws.

An initiative must be launched by at least seven citizens and be backed by 100,000 signatures collected within 18 months in order to push it to a national referendum.

For cantonal or communal initiatives, fewer signatures are required, based on the population of a given canton or municipality.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

How do you go about creating a new law?

First of all, you must be Swiss. It doesn’t matter whether you were born Swiss, were naturalised, or have a dual nationality — what counts is that you have the right to vote in Switzerland. 

A cyclist in Zurich.

A cyclist in Zurich. Ordinary citizens in Switzerland can influence how laws are made. Photo by Emilie Farris on Unsplash

Secondly, only adults over the age of 18 can sign a petition and vote.

This is the step-by-step process towards getting an initiative on the ballot:

The first step s to announce it to the Federal Chancellery — the government’s administrative arm — for a national referendum, and to the cantonal authority for regional votes.
The text of the federal initiative must be written in one of the national languages, and the Chancellery will then translate it into the other official languages. 
The cantonal / communal initiatives must be presented in the official language of the region.
Based on the merits of a particular issue, the Chancellery will either validate the initiative or reject it. In the former case, the organisers can begin to gather signatures, which should be collected within the defined period of time (as mentioned above). 

Once the required number of signatures is gathered, the petition is submitted to the Chancellery for the verification and validation of signatures. 

If all is ok, the date of the referendum is scheduled, and the campaign begins.

Do all initiatives eventually end up at the ballot box?
The ones deemed to be unimportant or irrelevant will be scrapped. However, sometimes even those than can be considered trivial pass the muster.
For instance, one of the wackiest citizen-driven initiatives was a 2010 push by animal rights activists that would require the government to appoint (and pay for) lawyers to represent animals in court.
Although the issue made it to the ballot box, the voters gave paws down to this proposal on the grounds that Switzerland already has strict laws protecting pets and farm animals.

Another group attempted to create a law on the “unconditional basic income,” that would force the government to give each adult in Switzerland 2,500 francs per month — just for existing.

That initiative too was turned down by the voters, as that this policy would strain the state budget.

Other citizen initiatives have been more successful in creating new laws, however.
One of them was a highly controversial push by right-wing groups to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in Switzerland, which were seen as representing Islam as a threat to Swiss society.
Despite the government’s plea to reject this initiative, about 57 percent of voters approved the measure.

It is now a law.