Euthanasia: Enforcing applicable law

Berne, 31.05.2006 - Wednesday saw the Federal Council acknowledge the "Euthanasia and Palliative Care – Does the Confederation Need to Act?" (Sterbehilfe und Palliativmedizin – Handlungsbedarf für den Bund?) report, which clarifies a number of issues raised by a motion put forward by the Council of State's Committee for Legal Affairs. The report concludes that possible abuses of assisted suicide must be prevented by the consistent application and enforcement of applicable law, especially by the criminal prosecution authorities. It also stated that, in principle, no further legislation is necessary in the area of euthansia. Further to a report by the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP), the Federal Council is recommending that the Swiss parliament should not pursue a revision of the relevant provisions of the Penal Code and should not enact any new legislation on the authorization and supervision of assisted suicide organizations.

The FDJP report comes to the following conclusions:

The Swiss Penal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB) does not contain any explicit provisions governing passive euthanasia (not taking or discontinuing action to prolong life) and indirect active euthanasia (administering pain relief, the side effect of which is to shorten life). The Penal Code does, however, prohibit killing for any reason, thereby drawing a clear line between punishable and non-punishable acts that is comprehensible to both medical practitioners and the criminal prosecution authorities. Legislators could include more specific provisions in the StGB or in another law, stating the circumstances under which these two forms of euthanasia would not be punishable acts. However, any general statutory ruling would still fail to address the critical questions that are raised in each individual case, and would therefore be of no practical benefit. Professional codes of practice, meanwhile - such as the guidelines issued by the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences - are better suited to dealing in detail with the manifold complexities of such cases.

Palliative care, which refers to all aspects of the support and care of terminally ill patients, helps to reduce the numbers of those requesting assisted suicide or active euthanasia. Palliative care allows these people to live out the last stage of their lives in dignity and to die with dignity. The report states that it is possible, indeed necessary, to expand the range of palliative care on offer and to improve information and advice to those concerned and their families. Palliative care falls largely within the authority of the cantons, while the Confederation might institute supporting programmes in the areas of training, research and the funding of care.

Assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland if it is not motivated by self-interest. This liberal approach has permitted the establishment of assisted suicide, or "right-to-die", organizations and led to the phenomenon of "suicide tourism". The increase in organized assisted suicide brings with it a danger of crossing the line between legal and punishable action. Abuses can nonetheless be prevented by the consistent application and enforcement of applicable law at both cantonal and municipal levels.

The Confederation could also enact supervisory legislation to monitor assisted suicides, but the options that have been examined have proven excessive and unworkable. They would tie the process up in red tape and make it difficult for the state to authorize assisted suicide organizations.

Further work

The anaesthetic sodium pentobarbital is widely used in the suicides assisted by right-to-die organizations. It may be that the conditions for prescribing and administering sodium pentobarbital are made more restrictive in future, thereby preventing abuse. In a second step, the Federal Council will look into a possible revision of anaesthesia legislation and measures to promote palliative care.

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Last modification 30.01.2024

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