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‘Suicide due to old age’: Swiss company wants to aid healthy elderly die

Published time: May 27, 2014 12:45
A care nurse helps a pensioner during lunch in a residential home for the elderly in Emmenbruecke near Lucerne (Reuters / Christian Hartmann)

A care nurse helps a pensioner during lunch in a residential home for the elderly in Emmenbruecke near Lucerne (Reuters / Christian Hartmann)

A Swiss group that helps terminally ill people take their lives has voted to assist healthy elderly people to pass away should they want. The option "suicide due to old age" will be given to those suffering from psychological or physical issues.

The decision was made at Exit’s general assembly meeting in Zurich over the weekend. The company now defines assisted suicide as “the right to the freely responsible death of a very old person wishing to die.”

“Those very advanced in age will no longer have to prove to the same extent as younger people that they are terminally ill in order to receive services,” the statement says.

Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since the 1940’s and can even be performed without the presence of a registered doctor. It falls under Article 115 of the Swiss penal code. As such it is ‘a crime if and only if the motive is selfish’.

In Switzerland, the most important thing is the motive, rather than the intent. All assisted suicides in the country are videotaped and once a death is reported to the police, the law enforcement together with an officer from the coroner’s department and a doctor will attend the scene and interview the family and any friends who may be present. If no selfish motive can be established, then there is no crime.

Still, if a person decides to resort to assisted suicide, the process will take quite long.

"Assisted suicide is a lengthy process. Doctors must take tests and talk to patients for hours asking them to justify their motivations. Old patients feel they do not have the energy for all of this and it is also not so dignified," Exit's vice-president, Bernhard Sutter, told the Telegraph.

The new legislation has come under fire from the Swiss Medical Association, who believes it will encourage suicide among the healthy. Under the new service being provided by Exit, technically a young healthy person could ask to be put to sleep permanently.

"We do not support the change of statutes by Exit. It gives us cause for concern because it cannot be ruled out that elderly healthy people could come under pressure of taking their own life," the association's president, Dr Jürg Schlup, told the Guardian.

However, Exit said that most people who would choose this option were already members of the organization and had been looking into assisted dying for years.

"Our members told us to get active on this subject. It was ripe for a decision," Exit's vice-president, Bernhard Sutter, said.

The organization said that elderly people seeking their services would still have to go through comprehensive checks – but that medical tests would be less stringent than those required for younger people.

Unlike the Swiss organization Dignitas, which also helps foreigners end their lives, Exit only offers its services to Swiss permanent residents and citizens, using the ingestion of the lethal drug sodium pentobarbital to end one’s life.

Exit has existed for more than 30 years and is funded by more than 73,000 members who pay regular membership fees for its services.