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While the debate regarding assisted suicide continues to swirl all around the world, rates in Switzerland continue to rise. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the number of people travelling to Switzerland to end their lives has increased by more than 33 percent in the last three years. In Switzerland, assisted suicide is not illegal unless the underlying motives for ending one’s life are considered self-serving.
In other parts of the world, the issue is not so black and white. In the U.S., there are no federal laws related to assisted suicide. In five states, including Vermont, Montana, Washington, and relative newcomer New Mexico, assisted suicide is legal. Oregon passed its “Death with Dignity Act” in 1997, which gave adults in Oregon who are terminally ill the right to obtain lethal medications from their doctors in order to hasten their own deaths. Since the law was enacted, a little under 1200 people have had prescriptions written and about 750 have used the medications to commit suicide.
According to Oregon’s most recent annual report of Jan. 2014, the top three reasons for assisted suicide were loss of independence, decreased dignity and the inability to engage in pleasurable activities. While assisted suicide rates are on the rise in Oregon (the numbers went from 24 the first year the law was passed to 122 in 2013), in 46 other states, assisted suicide is illegal. It is also illegal in other countries.
In France, it is only just recently that a family sought to have a doctor’s decision to end their loved one’s life overturned. Historically, the French have deferred to the physician’s judgment and expertise about assisted suicide as long as the doctor’s actions were intended to ease pain and suffering.
In Canada, the long-held stance against assisted suicide may be beginning to relax. While the laws have not changed, representatives of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) recently agreed that CMA would back those doctors who, after some soul-searching and within existing laws, decide to assist patients with suicide.
In the United Kingdom, just last month, members of the House of Lords met to craft a bill similar to Oregon’s. This bill, if adopted, would give mentally competent patients who have half a year or less to live the right to obtain a prescription for a lethal medication for the purpose of ending their lives. Retired Archbishop of Canterbury surprised most of his colleagues by speaking out in favor of the bill, which also has the support of Bishop Desmond Tutu. Also in support of the U.K.’s proposed bill is famed physicist Stephen Hawking, who offered the following opinion: “If you have a terminal illness, and are in great pain, I think you should have the right to end your life.“
Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, the increase in the number of people from other countries entering Switzerland for the purpose of ending their lives has given rise to a new term, “Suicide Tourism.” In fact, it has been reported that between 2008 and 2012, over 600 people from other countries have traveled to Switzerland and engaged the services of an organization called Dignatas in order to end their lives. No matter what the stance is on assisted suicide, based on changing policies and ongoing discussions around the world, the rates seem likely to continue to rise.
By Constance Spruill