Assisted Suicide in International Spotlight: Swiss Society Numbers Up, Australia Suspends Physician

Genevieve Plaster, M.A.  

Last week, an assisted suicide organization in Switzerland named Exit made the news with a report of an anomalous growth in membership. According to its vice president, a record number of about 60 to 100 new applicants poured in daily this July and August, instead of the expected lag in applications due to summer travel.  All told, Exit’s members amount to about 75,000.


Among these, 459 chose to end their lives last year with the organization, which provides the lethal drugs. According to the report, this frightening number exceeds the previous year by about 100.


It should be noted that Switzerland legalized assisted suicide decades ago in 1942. The law prescribes that the one who is assisting the suicide have no direct interest in the death and should not administer the lethal dose.


Up until this May, Exit provided its “services” only to the terminally ill. It has amended its policy to now include the elderly regardless of state of health. This radical move provoked disapproval from the Swiss Medical Association that warns  it will place undue pressure on the elderly to end their lives.


Exit’s vice president, Bernhard Sutter, notes that its members are generally older. “The generation now turning 40, 50, or 60 years old, which is the typical age that a person joins Exit, is used to making their own decisions.”


Another unaffiliated association in Australia, Exit International, has also lately come under fire. Its founder, prominent international euthanasia activist Dr. Philip Nitschke, admitted to helping a 45-year- old man commit suicide though he knew he was not terminally ill. Because of this, the Australian medical board suspended Nitschke’s license, calling him a “serious risk to public health and safety.”


The Australian Medical Association of Queensland’s President, Dr. Shaun Rudd, likewise voiced opposition to Nitschke, stating, “At this stage we firmly believe that medical practitioners should not be involved in interventions that have a primary intention of ending a person’s life – in other words causing them to commit suicide – we feel that’s inappropriate.”


Nitschke’s deregistration also hinges on a case in 2012 that has recently come to light in which 26- year-old Australian Lucas Taylor committed suicide after extensive online communication with other members of Nitschke’s organization. Using Exit’s forum, members advised Taylor about which lethal drugs to take, how much to take, and how to acquire them. Some even invited him on their own international trips to purchase the drugs.


Taylor’s suicide drew much attention to the nature of such death-oriented forums, resulting in the notice currently displayed on Exit’s website: “The Peaceful Pill forums are temporarily suspended due to infiltration by the media. Members will be permitted re-entry on a case-by-case basis.”


Judi Taylor, the young man’s mother, described the forum’s influence and goal as “death-coaching.” She lamented, “I think he really just got swept up in it when probably what Lucas needed was some medical care; he didn’t need that website.” Understandably, Mrs. Taylor called for Exit International’s forum to be shut down. “That wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest,” was Nitschke’s response.


Despite his suspension and the negative attention it’s garnered, Nitschke held a public workshop on assisted suicide this past Thursday, observing that “[t]here’s been a rush of requests for information from people all over the nation.” He will be appealing his suspension on the grounds that his work does not constitute “medical practice.”


Aside from these reports, Great Britain has been in the international spotlight throughout the summer as it considers Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. The law would legalize assisted suicide for mentally competent adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live. The debate lasted near 10 hours, with over 120 speakers, and was equally split between proponents and opponents. The bill’s next stage – going through the committee – will likely only happen this fall.


In the United States, four states have legalized physician-assisted suicide: Oregon, Montana, Vermont, and Washington. Connecticut is looking to join their ranks with a bill entitled “An Act Concerning Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients.” Introduced this February, it has been referred to the Committee on Public Health.


CLI adjunct scholar Dr. Jacqueline Harvey aptly presented numerous concerns regarding physician-assisted suicide when Massachusetts included a bill on its general election ballot in 2012. (It was defeated 52% to 48%.) The main arguments she highlighted on that occasion remain relevant and powerful today against arguments for assisted suicide. Legal assisted suicide can unduly target individuals with disabilities, contribute to pressure patients face to relieve family of financial hardship, and can promote a health insurance carrier’s favoring of assisted suicide to the exclusion of palliative care due to financial considerations. In addition, sick individuals may be given a mistaken diagnosis of a terminal illness, which could prove to be a fatal error if legislation permits assisted suicide when a terminal illness is present.


A sympathetic stance towards physician-assisted suicide is often born of legitimate sympathy for the suffering. The euphemistic slogan, “To Live with Dignity, To Die with Dignity” of the Swiss “right-to-die” society Dignitas couldn’t make this clearer. But for the reasons laid out above and more, assisted suicide is not a fitting response to the demands to honor the dignity of human life, which must be legally protected and cared for until its natural end.


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