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One in five foreign visitors to Swiss assisted-suicide clinics are Britons

Published time: August 21, 2014 15:22
(Reuters / Neil Hall)

(Reuters / Neil Hall)

Twenty percent of those who travel to Switzerland to terminate their lives hail from the UK, a recent Zurich University study has revealed.

Published on Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the research found that the number of non-residents willfully taking their own lives at assisted-dying clinics throughout Switzerland increased from 86 in 2009 to 172 in 2012.

As part of the study, experts analyzed data relating to non-Swiss residents for a period of five consecutive years. 611 individuals from far-flung states traveled to Switzerland to partake in an assisted suicide between 2008 and 2012, the research revealed. And 126 of those, or approximately one in five, were Britons.

While assisted suicide is stringently restricted across most of Europe, it is not regulated by Swiss law in a definitive manner. This legislative leniency has sparked an influx of citizens travelling to Switzerland for the sole reason of committing suicide, with Swiss medico-legal experts processing such cases on an almost daily basis.

The concept of assisted-dying is currently gaining traction among campaigners across the UK. Following the release of Zurich University’s research on the subject, Sarah Wooton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying told the Guardian it’s unethical to force “dying Britons” to leave British shores to terminate their lives “through a lack of safeguarded choice” in their homeland.

“There is also a patient safety issue,” she added. “We have no control over the law in Switzerland, but we can and should regulate and safeguard assisted dying in this country.”

The Zurich study indicates the number of British people opting for assisted-suicide in Switzerland increased markedly between 2008 and 2012. According to Wooton, figures pertaining to Britons in the research illustrate UK law governing this complex area is inadequate.

British lawyer and former Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer (AFP Photo / Paul Ellis)

An official spokesman for Care Not Killing – an alliance of organizations and individuals that work to ensure existing legislation against euthanasia and assisted-dying is not weakened or repealed - emphasized the study’s statistics revealed a fragmented and incomplete picture.

The research failed to show the precise number of those who attended the Swiss clinic that were clinically depressed as opposed to terminally ill, he told the Guardian. "We're still talking about minuscule numbers and we are missing the much wider point about how do we care for those who are terminally ill or disabled," he added.

‘Compassionate treated like criminals’

The concept of assisted dying has also been a subject of heated debate in the House of Lords recently.

Following the release of the Zurich University study, shadow spokesperson for constitutional and deputy prime ministerial issues, Lord Falconer, emphasized a concrete but cautious legislative shift was paramount.

“The current situation leaves the rich able to go to Switzerland, the majority reliant on amateur assistance, [and] the compassionate treated like criminals,” he said.

“It is time for a change in the law but only a very limited and safeguarded change.”

Amongst the Britons, who endorse assisted suicide, is veteran broadcaster and high-profile journalist, Jeremy Paxman. During his debut comedy show at the internationally renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Paxman said he bore “no objection” to the act.

"Death is the one thing that awaits every one of us and of course it is completely unknowable," the former Newsnight Presenter told his audience.

"It seems to me we should all be making some preparation for a decent death, and speaking for myself, I have no objection to assisted suicide, at all. If it requires someone to help you, I think they should be entitled to help you."