Judges in the European Union are on track to legalize suicide-on-demand through the case of a healthy Swiss woman who decided she wanted to die and sued when doctors refused to prescribe poison.
The dispute is between Alda Gross and her Swiss government, which already allows doctor-prescribed death under certain circumstances.
Gross decided she wanted to die but could not find a doctor prepared to prescribe the poison, sodium pentobarbital. Swiss law requires that a doctor do an examination and prescribe the drug for people wanting to kill themselves.
Swiss courts had ruled that restrictions placed on the drug are there to prevent abuse and cannot be overridden without a medical prescription. However, a sub-panel of the European Court of Human Rights said the ruling violated the demand in the European Convention on Human Rights to respect the “private life” of an individual.
According to Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Center for Law and Justice, the panel’s 4-3 decision requiring that the Swiss government allow access to poisons without a doctor’s prescription uncovered a deep division. The case now is being reviewed by the court’s Grand Chamber of 17 judges.
“Four judges … imposed their decision on the three others … at the price of the court’s unity and the prudence of its case law,” Puppinck said, “both of which are essential conditions of its authority.
“Indeed, the four judges also imposed their view on the entire court, which will have now to reconsider the case more seriously, remembering Article 2 of the Convention according to which ‘no one shall be deprived of his life intentionally,’” he said.
A previous decision on the issue, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, rejected the claim that a nation had an obligation to assist individuals in committing suicide.
“The government has an obligation to protect life, not facilitate death,” said ADF Legal Counsel Paul Coleman. “Claims to personal autonomy do not override national laws designed to protect the weak and vulnerable. We trust the Grand Chamber will support this principle, which is entirely consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.”
ADF and ECLJ have intervened in the case because of its significance.
“The clear jurisprudence of the court is that there is no right to assisted suicide or euthanasia under the convention, nor are there any positive obligations on the state in regard to these issues, save the positive duty on the states to protect life under Article 2,” ADF argued.
Puppinck warned that the “difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia is tiny, it depends on who ‘pushes the button.’”
He noted that the section judges found “in an era of growing medical sophistication combined with longer life expectancies, many people are concerned that they should not be forced to linger on in old age or in states of advanced physical or mental decrepitude which conflict with strongly held ideas of self and personal identity.”
The ruling that Switzerland “violated the private life of the woman” in the case by not providing suicide aid conflicts with human rights and medicine, “which do not contain a right to die nor a duty to kill,” Puppinck said.
It was Switzerland’s law banning lethal poison for healthy individuals that violated Article 8, respecting a private life, of the European Convention on Human Rights, the court panel said.
The court previously has endorsed assisted suicide if a person suffers certain medical conditions. But now the question is whether someone who simply has “grown tired of living” can demand the poisons needed for suicide.
Already, Puppinck said, according to Swiss law, “incitation to and assistance in suicide are only culpable offenses when they are committed for ‘selfish motives.’”
“The Swiss Federal Supreme Court has specified, in the application of legislation relating to drugs and medication that the poison can only be given by medical prescription and that this prescription is only valid on the condition that the doctor respects the rules of the profession, in particular the ethical guidelines adopted by the Academy of Medical Sciences (Judgment of 3rd November, BGE 133 I 58),” he said.
“These guidelines notably relate to the patient’s health – who should be ill and coming to the end of their life – and to the expression of their will; they aim to protect the patient against outside pressure and impulsive decisions.”
The case, he said, centers on around whether “the notion that suicide has acquired the quality of an individual right or freedom, and so a deontological norm cannot impede its exercise: it is for the law to regulate, even if it is realized through the art of medicine.”