Suicide Tourism: An Ethical Business?

This is actually a nonprofit, but it’s interesting to think about the ramifications of running a business that helps people die:

Switzerland, in a law dating back to 1942, permits foreigners to come and kill themselves, placing few restrictions on the how, when and why. Doctors have relative freedom to prescribe a veterinary drug for that very purpose. Now the country’s suicide practices are under the spotlight after British TV last week showed Craig Ewert, a 59-year-old Chicago man with a severe form of motor neuron disease, killing himself in Switzerland two years ago.comes to die.

Like Ewert, most foreigners turn to Dignitas, one of several Swiss organizations dedicated to the cause. Dignitas’ founder, Ludwig A. Minelli, has built the group into a thriving nonprofit operation. Dignitas says its members’ right to self-determination is paramount. The only criteria for assisting a suicide are that the person “suffers from an illness that inevitably leads to death, or from an unacceptable disability, and wants to end their life and suffering voluntarily.”

Dignitas says it charges 10,000 Swiss francs ($8,300) for its services, which include taking care of legal formalities and arranging consultations with a doctor willing to prescribe the deadly medicine. The group says it pays its staff salaries and invests any profit in its advocacy and counseling work, which includes suicide prevention efforts.

Other such organizations in Switzerland say they are cheaper and do not charge the patient directly, relying instead on membership fees and donations. “We need to ensure that there’s no economic incentive for these organizations to encourage people to commit suicide,” says (a critic).

The drug they use is pentobarbital, generally used in veterinary clinics. Here in the States, people sometimes travel to buy a drinkable dose of the stuff in Tijuana, then take it back home with them.

I’m going to make two assumptions here:

1. People have the right to choose assisted suicide

2. Writing a check for $8,300, booking a ticket to Switzerland, checking into a death hotel, and drinking a cup of pentobarbital are the only barriers to entry for your assisted suicide

If those assumptions are true, does that make setting up a nonprofit and charging a flat fee for assisted suicide ethical? I don’t think so. The Swiss laws provide a fruitful environment for that kind of business, but that doesn’t justify making it easy to sign up.

Capitalism is a useful philosophy, but it has a tendency to usurp ethical limits in the name of profit. Allowing the seed of a profit-off-death industry to flourish is a bad idea. For now, Dignitas has a certain set of parameters, but what if a money-hungry outfit sets up shop across the street, one that costs less and has fewer requirements? I shudder to think of what kinds of people could slip through the cracks.

Doctors, ethicists, and terminally ill patients need to advocate an additional layer of requirements before allowing patients to admit themselves, a system designed to give sufferers access to as many life-affirming options as possible before they decide to die. A year of therapy, for example, or a year of participating in a social network comprised of people who suffer from similar afflictions.

It’s a shame to see a system so accommodating to the loss of hope.

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Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.