More nursing homes allow assisted suicide

Zurich is leading the way in making assisted suicide available in retirement and nursing homes.


In a recent poll of nursing home employees in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, more than 50 percent confirmed that assisted suicide was practised at their place of work, newspaper Tribune de Genève reported.

“Only five years ago, only 20 percent of institutions accepted it,” Bernhard Sutter, vice president of Exit, the Swiss organization for assisted suicide, told the newspaper.

The number of instances where nursing homes are inviting Exit in to assist has been rising, with homes in Zurich leading the way, newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported.

“It’s a development that is fanning out from Zurich in all directions,” said Sutter in Tages Anzeiger.

Marc Pfirter, head of the Regional Care Centre in Baden, was forced recently to develop a policy for the centre when two of its residents asked for assistance in death.

“It’s not up to us to determine what is right or wrong,” he told Tages Anzeiger.

Pfirter, along with the home’s governing body, have taken the position that the will of the patients must remain “sacrosanct”.

On admission, “their world shrinks to a bed and a chest of drawers,” Pfirter said.

Some are also unable to move without assistance, which means their ability to function autonomously has been further reduced. Pfirter therefore concluded that the ability to determine the end of one’s life should rest in the hands of the elderly person.

The trend has not taken off across the entire region. In Solothurn, for example, assisted suicide is not permitted. Discussions are under way to amend this situation but the debate is heated.

Hans Ruedi Moor, director of the nursing home Wenigstein im Gremium, is against introducing assisted suicide in nursing homes.

“Imagine – two women live in one of our rooms. One day suddenly one of them is gone. The other asks us: ‘What happened? She was still doing pretty well yesterday?’ And we say then, ‘Exit was here’.  This would be the trigger for great anxiety and uncertainty among the homes’ inhabitants.”

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Switzerland: What is the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia?

While the terms often are used interchangeably, assisted suicide and euthanasia - and the laws that govern them - are quite different. Here’s what you need to know.

A person in a medical coat holds hands with another
Euthanasia and assisted suicide might be spoken of in the same breath, but they are quite different. Here's what you need to know. Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

The terms assisted suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia are often used interchangeably – even by media and politicians covering the matter. 

There are however some key differences, both in terms of the legal situation and the practice itself. 

Assisted suicide is where a medical professional, usually a doctor but sometimes a pharmacist or other specialist, provides some form of medication to assist a patient as they commit suicide. 

EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland

Crucially, it is the patient who takes the final step, i.e. by taking a medication or by pressing a switch through which the medication is administered. 

Euthanasia on the other hand is where the medication which ends someone’s life is administered by a doctor or medical professional. 

Euthanasia is sometimes known as voluntary euthanasia, which references the fact that the patient volunteers for the process by providing consent. 

Other forms of medical intervention which lead to death – for instance turning off life support for someone who has been in a long-term coma – do not fit within the definition of voluntary euthanasia. 

The term ‘assisted dying’ is used as a grouping term to refer to both assisted suicide and euthanasia, although media sources – particularly in the United Kingdom – often use assisted dying when referring primarily to assisted suicide. 

What are the rules for assisted suicide and euthanasia in Switzerland? 

The law in Switzerland recognises the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia. 

Euthanasia is not permitted under law in Switzerland, while assisted suicide is allowed for both locals and foreigners. 

While article 115 of the Swiss penal code prohibits assisted suicide for “self-serving reasons” and article 114 prohibits “causing the death” of a person for “commendable motives, and in particular out of compassion for the victim”, assisted suicide for non-selfish reasons is not specifically prohibited as long as certain conditions are met. 

The Swiss supreme court has ruled the following: people must commit suicide by their own hand, for example, by taking medication themselves. A doctor cannot administer a lethal injection without being liable for criminal prosecution.

People must also be aware of actions they are undertaking and have given due consideration to their situation. In addition, they be consistently sure they wish to die, and, of course, not be under the influence of another person, or group of persons.

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

Several other jurisdictions across Europe and the globe also make a legal distinction between the two, although euthanasia is legal in some countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Columbia. 

What is the medical procedure involved?

Most Swiss associations request that patients drink sodium pentobarbital, a sedative that in strong enough doses causes the heart muscle to stop beating.

Since the substance is alkaline, it burns a bit when swallowed.

A professional prepares the needle, but it is up to the patient to open the valve that allows the short-acting barbiturate to mix with a saline solution and begin flowing into their vein.

A video is shot of the patient stating their name, date of birth and that they understand what they are about to do. The camera keeps rolling as they open the valve and the footage is used as evidence that they willingly took their own life.

It usually takes about 20 to 30 seconds for the patient to fall asleep.