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BMJ. 2007 November 24; 335(7629): 1064–1065.
PMCID: PMC2094179

Swiss hospitals admit to allowing assisted suicide on their wards

The University Hospital in Bern, Switzerland, admitted last week that an assisted suicide of a terminally ill patient took place on its premises in April 2007. The hospital's management and its ethics committee sanctioned the assisted suicide of a patient with cancer who was too ill to be transported anywhere else, a hospital spokesperson said.

The patient was helped by a member of the Swiss organisation Exit, which provides assistance to patients living in Switzerland who wish to commit suicide. Helping terminally ill patients to commit suicide is not illegal in Switzerland.

After the Bern hospital's announcement the university hospitals of Lausanne and Geneva also admitted that assisted suicides had taken place on their premises. The Swiss Academy of Medical and Natural Sciences (www.samw.ch) ruled in 2007 that hospitals could decide for themselves whether or not to allow assisted suicide.

Most hospitals in Switzerland have established guidelines on assisted suicide that require a patient's mental capacity to be assessed and that assisted suicide can take place in hospital only if it is impossible for the patient to be taken home or to other private settings. Each case must be individually approved by a special hospital committee.

The Bern case has rekindled public interest in what has become known as “suicide tourism,” because one Swiss organisation, Dignitas, is prepared to offer its services to people who live outside Switzerland. The organisation has helped more than 800 terminally ill patients, including patients from Germany and Britain, to commit suicide through the supervised administration of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital.

It charges €3000 (£2150; $4400) for its services and requires clients to become members.

Dignitas was founded in 1998 by the journalist and lawyer Ludwig Minelli. The organisation recently hit the headlines when it helped German people to commit suicide in their cars in a Swiss car park after it was banned from using a Zurich flat and rented hotel rooms in the city.

Mr Minelli said in an interview with Die Welt that Dignitas respected the wishes of its customers to die wherever they choose, even if this was on a park bench (www.welt.de, 12 Nov, “Dignitas sieht Suizid als ‘letztes Menschenrecht'”).


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