Sunday, January 30, 2011

Suicide Not a "Right" Even in Switzerland

There is no human right to assisted suicide, the European Court of Human Rights has declared, in a unanimous verdict.

The background to this important judgement is in Switzerland. A 57-year-old Swiss national, Ernst G. Haas, felt that he could no longer live a dignified life after battling a serious bipolar affective disorder for 20 years. He twice attempted suicide, but then hit upon the idea of using sodium pentobarbital, a prescription-only drug. But no psychiatrist would prescribe it for him. He then asked the Swiss government for permission to obtain sodium pentobarbital without a prescription. He argued that Article 8 imposed on the State a "positive obligation" to create the conditions for suicide to be committed without the risk of failure and without pain.

Various Swiss courts refused. Mr Haas then asked 170 different psychiatrists whether they could examine him with a view to getting his hands on some sodium pentobarbital. They all refused.

As a result, Mr Haas invoked Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to privacy, and sued the Swiss government in the European Court of Human Rights.

On January 20, the Court handed down its decision. It acknowledged that there does appear to be a right to suicide implied in Article 8. This has been strengthened by the 2002 Pretty case, in which the Court approved the right of a British woman to kill herself if she found life undignified and distressing.

However, Article 2 of the Convention also guarantees the right to life. Most member states give the right to life more weight than the right to suicide.

The Court pointed out that a prescription system is supposed to protect vulnerable people from making hasty decisions and to prevent abuse. That was all the more true in a country such as Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.
The Court considered that the risk of abuse inherent in a system which facilitated assisted suicide could not be underestimated. The Court agreed with the Swiss Government’s argument that the restriction on access to sodium pentobarbital was intended to protect health and public safety and to prevent crime. It also shared the view of the Federal Court that the right to life obliged States to put in place a procedure apt to ensure that a decision to end one’s life did in fact reflect the free will of the party concerned. The Court considered that the need for a prescription, issued on the basis of a full psychiatric report, constituted a means of fulfilling that requirement.
It also declared that the risk of abuse inherent in a system which facilitated assisted suicide can not be underestimated. That is why a prescription from a doctor and a psychiatric examination to ensure free will are proper safeguards. ~ Human Rights Europe, Jan 20

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