World News

More non-terminally ill seek Swiss suicide aid - study

GENEVA (Reuters) - Increasing numbers of people seeking assisted suicides in Switzerland do not suffer from a terminal illness, according to a study released on Tuesday whose findings were rejected by a right-to-die group.

Researchers from the University of Zurich and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences said many elderly people who have sought assistance to end their lives in Switzerland suffered from chronic and other non-life-threatening conditions.

“Being tired of life and in very poor health are becoming more frequent reasons to seek help to commit suicide than in the past,” said Susanne Fischer, co-author of the review of assisted suicides in Zurich undertaken by two groups, Exit and Dignitas.

Those groups have sparked international controversy in past years alongside a rise in “death tourism” to Switzerland, which has some of the world’s most liberal assisted suicide rules.

The study analysed details of 421 people who had assisted suicides between 2001 and 2004 in Zurich -- 274 with the help of Dignitas and 147 with Exit -- and compared them to information about 149 suicides assisted by Exit from 1990 to 2000.

Among those who had assisted suicides with Dignitas, 79 percent had terminal illnesses such as cancer, and for Exit a smaller proportion -- 67 percent -- were terminally ill.

From 1990 to 2000, some 78 percent of those who ended their lives with the help of Exit had fatal conditions, it found.

Exit rejected the study’s conclusions in a statement saying there was “no trend” of people justifying their wish to die with “vague sick-of-life” symptoms.

“The figures are not representative of all Switzerland. Also, the researchers did not have the full diagnosis of the doctors,” Bernhard Sutter of Exit’s board told Reuters.

“We help only people with fatal diseases or who are very seriously ill. For the last 12 years, the number suffering from fatal diseases has always been the same, between 65 and 75 percent. The rest, maybe a third or less, are very ill.”

Many in the latter category have multiple diseases whose cumulative effect causes much pain and suffering, he said.

“We work with doctors who have their medical code and will not issue a prescription (for the lethal drugs) if someone is not in a bad state,” Sutter said.

Assisted suicide has been allowed in Switzerland since the 1940s if performed by a non-physician who has no vested interest in the death. Both Exit and Dignitas use lethal drugs prescribed by a physician to end the lives of those who seek their help.

The suicides take place in peoples’ homes or in hotel rooms.

Between 2001 and 2004, 91 percent of those who died with help from Dignitas were foreigners, mostly from Germany, France and Britain. Only 3 percent of those turning to Exit came from abroad, according to the researchers.