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Assisted suicides in Switzerland more than double in the last five years

The Dignitas Centre (AP Photo/Keystone, Steffen Schmidt)

Deaths by assisted suicide in Switzerland have more than doubled in the last five years, new figures have revealed.

They have soared from 416 cases in 2011 to 1,004 last year, according to statistics released by Dignitas and Exit, Swiss organisations which run suicide clinics.

The dramatic surge mirrors increases in Belgium, a country which has also seen euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths double in the same period, and in the Netherlands which records incremental increases in assisted deaths every year.

The number of people who have died by assisted suicide in the U.S. State of Oregon has also rocketed by 26 per cent in the last year, reaching a record high.

The figures prompted renewed warnings in Britain about the dangers inherent in attempting to create a legislative framework for physician-assisted death.

Lord Carlile of Berriew, a co-patron of Living and Dying Well, a Westminster think tank, said the latest figures revealed a “lack of control and scrutiny of the assisted suicide laws in Switzerland, and the poor protections for people with disabilities and psychiatric problems”.

Phil Friend, spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK, a disability rights group opposed to assisted suicide, said the increases also showed that in some countries assisted death was beginning to be seen as a preferable option to normal health care.

“It’s terrifying – people are beginning to see it as a much easier option for people to assisted to die than to help them,” he said.
“It is very worrying that death has become preferable to looking after someone,” Mr Friend added.

The majority of the assisted suicide deaths in Switzerland in 2015 – comprising 782 cases – involved Swiss nationals dying at Exit, a clinic which does not offer its services to foreign nationals.

A further 222 deaths occurred in clinics run by Dignitas, which does offer its services to foreigners, and among them were 37 British citizens.

They included Jeffrey Spector, a father-of-three from Lancashire who feared paralysis by a tumour on his spine, and Bob Cole, a lung cancer sufferer from Chester whose wife Ann had committed suicide at the Zurich clinic the year before.

They also include Simon Binner, a humanist filmed by the BBC committing suicide in Switzerland last October.

Exit revealed that Fifty-five per cent of the people who killed themselves in its clinics last year were women and the rest were men, and that the average age of a patient was 77 years old.

Switzerland has tolerated assisted suicide since the 1940s as long as people commit the act themselves and their helpers have no vested interests in their deaths.

A 2006 judgement by the Swiss Federal Court ruled that anyone of sound mind, irrespective of their medical condition, had a right to determine when to end their lives.

Death is usually induced by a lethal dose of barbiturates which are either drank by the patient or pumped into their bloodstream by a drip.

In Britain, the House of Commons last year threw out an Assisted Dying Bill by 336 votes to 118 in spite of court rulings which leaned in favour of a change in the law.

The laws had already been transformed by Sir Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions and now a Labour MP, who clarified prosecution guidelines at the request of Law Lords.

His reforms effectively meant that no-one would be prosecuted for assisting a suicide, a crime which carries a 14-year maximum jail sentence, unless they became involved for financial gain.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “The numbers having an assisted death in Switzerland are sadly unsurprising. It is clear from the numbers travelling to Switzerland that many terminally ill British people want an assisted death and are willing to make the desperate decision to travel abroad to have one because they are denied that possibility at home.

“MPs defeating the Assisted Dying Bill last September has done nothing to stop terminally ill people’s wish to control their own deaths, nor has it done anything to provide comfort or control to the many terminally ill people too poor or sick to travel to Switzerland.

“This problem is not going to go away whilst British law bans people from having choice over their own deaths.”