Swiss high court ruling opens possibility of assisted suicide for mentally ill

Friday, February 2nd 2007, 6:28 pm
By: News On 6

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) _ A ruling by Switzerland's highest court released Friday has opened up the possibility that people with serious mental illnesses could be helped by doctors to take their own lives.

Switzerland already allows physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients under certain circumstances. The Federal Tribunal's decision puts mental illnesses on the same level as physical ones.

``It must be recognized that an incurable, permanent, serious mental disorder can cause similar suffering as a physical (disorder), making life appear unbearable to the patient in the long term,'' the ruling said.

``If the death wish is based on an autonomous decision which takes all circumstances into account, then a mentally ill person can be prescribed sodium-pentobarbital and thereby assisted in suicide,'' it added.

Various organizations exist in Switzerland to help people who want to commit suicide, and assisting someone to die is not punishable under Swiss law as long as there is no ``selfish motivation'' for doing so.

The judges made clear in their ruling that certain conditions would have to be met before a mentally ill person's request for suicide assistance could be considered justified.

``A distinction has to be made between a death wish which is an expression of a curable, psychiatric disorder and which requires treatment, and (a death wish) which is based on a person of sound judgment's own well-considered and permanent decision, which must be respected,'' they said.

The case was brought by a 53-year old man with serious bipolar affective disorder who asked the tribunal to allow him to acquire a lethal dose of pentobarbital without a doctor's prescription.

The tribunal ruled against his request, confirming the need for a thorough medical assessment of the patient's condition.

Whether any Swiss physician would be prepared to prescribe a lethal dose of pentobarbital to a mentally ill person remains unclear. The country's national ethics commission could not be reached for comment late on Friday.

One U.S. expert on medical ethics said such a policy would be both difficult to enforce and dangerous to apply.

``Assisted suicide has always been linked to the challenge of allowing the terminally ill a choice in managing their inevitable death,'' said Dr. Arthur Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. ``Linking the right to assistance in dying to the quality of someone's life or their suffering is an enormous and in my view very dangerous shift in legal and ethical thinking about assisted suicide.''

Caplan said the policy could lead to a ``very slippery slope,'' opening the door to anyone who claims to have unbearable psychological or emotional suffering to request help in dying _ people with terrible burns, those who are severely disfigured, those who are emotionally bereft at the loss of a child or partner and even those suffering from career failures.

``This is an incredibly controversial decision,'' he said. ``Is the doctor's mission to eliminate difficult and horrendous human suffering by helping people to die?''

Switzerland is one of a number of countries in Europe that allow assistance to terminally ill people who wish to die.

Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2001 and Belgium in 2002, while Britain and France allow terminally ill people to refuse treatment in favor of death.