As a form of medical tourism, suicide tourism is the practice of individuals travelling to jurisdictions to commit assisted suicide where it is legal to do so. The candidates are usually those suffering from incurable or painful diseases.
Life expectancy has been improving globally over the years, from an average of 52.5 years in 1960 to 72.6 years today. But while people are living longer, some experience major health problems. As a consequence, growing numbers of people are seeking autonomy over the choice to live or die. Activists are lobbying governments to legalise this, in what’s known as the right to die campaign.
The most popular destination is Switzerland which has been allowing assisted suicide since 1942. The medico legal experts there are faced with these cases almost daily. “The main reasons for deciding to die were neurological diseases (47 percent), followed by cancers (37 percent), rheumatic and cardiovascular diseases,” says Dr. Saskia Gauthier of the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Zurich. The right to die organisation Dignitas provides this service to those who suffer from terminal illnesses and/or severe physical or mental illness.They had assisted 3,248 people to die at home by the end of 2020.
In Belgium, prospective candidates must meet with a doctor several times over a period of months to ensure that the application is voluntary, well-considered and without outside pressure.The applicant must also be experiencing unbearable and unrelieved physical or psychological suffering. According to The Guardian newspaper the cost is $3,500. There were 2,357 cases of euthanasia in 2018 which equates to about six a day.
In response to public pressure generated by several high profile cases, Spain’s parliament has just legalised euthanasia, becoming one of a handful of nations to allow this. The most notable case has been that of Ramon Sampedro, whose story has been captured in the Oscar-winning 2014 film “The Sea Inside”. “Today we have become a country that is more humane, fairer and freer. The euthanasia law, widely demanded by society, has finally become a reality,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
Above: English trailer for “The Sea Inside”
In 2015, dying lawyer Robert Stransham-Ford, applied to the Pretoria High Court for the right to end his life and the judge ruled in his favour. At the moment, Dr. Suzanne Walters and her patient Diethelm Harck, both of whom have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses, are appealing to the Johannesburg High Court to permit physician-assisted suicide and physician assisted euthanasia. Harck says “From what I have seen and witnessed, motor neuron disease death is not peaceful. I have seen a number of colleagues and [support] group members pass away. They had no way to communicate. And they could not breathe easily.” They are testifying before a commissioner with the trial still to be set down for hearing. Dignity SA has joined the legal action as a plaintiff while the Health Professions Council of South Africa and the Ministers of Health, Justice and the National Director of Public Prosecutions, are opposing the application.
Dignity SA is a non profit organisation advocating for a change in South African law that would enable mentally competent adults the option of a dignified death, should they so choose.
Political debate regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide is taking place around the world. For as long as there are only a few countries where this is legal, candidates will travel to destinations where it is permitted. If this does become legal in South Africa, there may be an influx of applicants travelling here, from the rest of Africa, as they do for other medical treatments.
By Faeeza Khan
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Image credit: Eva Darron