If Alda Gross gets her way, the Swiss government will give her the drugs needed to commit suicide.
Gross filed a lawsuit against the Swiss government when she couldn’t find a doctor to prescribe for her the suicide drug sodium pentobarbital.
Court documents and a brief filed by the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund show that Gross said she’s getting increasingly frail and has no desire to continue living in her condition.
Although Switzerland is one of only a few European countries to allow doctor-assisted death, it only permits individuals to obtain sodium pentobarbital after a medical examination and prescription by a doctor.
Gross, a Swiss citizen, failed to find a doctor prepared to prescribe the lethal substance to her, so she appealed to the national courts in 2009. The Swiss courts held that the restrictive conditions placed on the drug are in place to prevent abuse and cannot be overridden without the required medical prescription.
ADF Counsel Paul Coleman works in the ADF’s European office in Vienna, Austria, and has dealt extensively with the European Union’s court system. Coleman said ADF is fighting against the expansion of physician-assisted suicide.
He also said the court may allow the Swiss government’s decision to refuse the drug to stand.
“It is very likely that the European Court will not find any violations of the European Convention on Human Rights,” Coleman said. “Claims to personal autonomy do not override national laws [that] which are designed to protect the weak and vulnerable. This position is supported by the European Court’s existing case law and is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Coleman said Gross claims she wants the sodium pentobarbital to commit suicide in a “dignified” and “safe” manner, but the Swiss government allows for only a narrow prescription of the drug.
“For a medical doctor to prescribe ‘suicide drugs’ to a patient, the patient must be suffering from a terminal illness,” Coleman said. “If a doctor prescribes suicide drugs to a non-terminally ill patient, the doctor will be committing a criminal offense.”
Coleman said the case is only one of many, and it likely won’t get any press attention. But it is getting the attention of various legal organizations.
European Court of Human Rights spokeswoman Petra Leppee-Fraize said ADF is one of several petitioners.
“The court has already received four requests for third-party interventions, but not all of them have yet been decided on,” Leppee-Fraize said.
She noted that third-party interventions are based on Article 36 § 2 of the Convention and Rule 44 of the Rules of the Court, both of which are available on the court’s website.
Leppee-Fraize added that no court date had been set and that he couldn’t give too many details.
Yet Coleman said the European Court of Human Rights impacts 47 countries, so the case could have a major impact across Europe.
Laws around the world on physician-assisted suicide vary. Presently, only a few countries allow the practice, but each has a series of guidelines and restrictions on its use. Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands provide for doctor-assisted suicide only under certain conditions.
In the United States, assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington state and Montana.
Most states impose severe criminal penalties for a doctor or any other person who assists or promotes suicide.
The Pennsylvania statute represents most states on the practice. Chapter 18 of the Pennsylvania Statutes, Chapter 2505 reads as follows:
(a) Causing suicide as criminal homicide. – A person may be convicted of criminal homicide for causing another to commit suicide only if he intentionally causes such suicide by force, duress or deception.
(b) Aiding or soliciting suicide as an independent offense. – A person who intentionally aids or solicits another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony of the second degree if his conduct causes such suicide or an attempted suicide, and otherwise of a misdemeanor of the second degree.
Alabama, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Vermont and the District of Columbia have no statute regarding physician-assisted suicide and defer to court decisions on the issue. Utah and Nevada do not accept case law and don’t have any statutes relating to the issue.