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‘Suicide tourism’ has doubled to Switzerland’s notorious Dignitas facility in the past five years, and one in five Dignitas clients are from the UK, a study conducted by Zurich University has found.

The study, published by the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Medical Ethics found that there were 86 cases of ‘suicide tourism’ to Switzerland in 2009, which rose to 172 cases by 2012.

In all, 611 non-Swiss residents had come to Switzerland to commit suicide between 2008 and 2012. Of that total, 268 were German and 126 were UK citizens.

“Swiss medicolegal experts are confronted with these cases almost daily,” the researchers said, adding, “Non-terminal conditions such as neurological and rheumatic diseases are increasing among suicide tourists.”

While all but four of the non-Swiss clients went to Dignitas, the most famous facility, the study noted that there are “six right to die organisations in Switzerland, of which four permit nationals from other countries to use their services.”  

Other countries saw steep increases in the number of suicide clients represented, with the number of Italians using the Swiss facilities rising from 4 in 2009 to 22 in 2012. The number of French citizens travelling to Switzerland to commit suicide rose from 7 to 19 in the same period. The researchers noted that the countries most represented in the study, France, Germany and Britain are all considering legislation to legalize assisted suicide, or are debating the matter.

The medical conditions that motivate clients were most frequently listed as “paralysis, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.” Other illnesses included cancer and “rheumatic diseases.” The average age of suicide clients was 69 and 58.5 percent were women.

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The number of clients from Britain has raised the alarm among pro-life groups in that country who are opposing a bill that would legalize assisted suicide. Campaigners have said that the government-funded medical system in Britain, as in most European countries, leads to increased pressure for suicide, which is seen as a cheaper option than funding long-term or palliative care.

Lord Falconer himself, who is behind the UK’s assisted suicide bill, has raised the issue of Britons travelling to Switzerland to commit suicide in justifying the bill, saying that similar provision needs to be made in the UK.

Responding to the Zurich study, Falconer said, “The current situation leaves the rich able to go to Switzerland, the majority reliant on amateur assistance, [and] the compassionate treated like criminals.”

But an open letter from the campaign group, Nurses Opposed to Euthanasia, a project of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said that should assisted suicide be legalized in Britain, many nurses would refuse to participate.

“In my professional experience, patients look to their carers to affirm their lives, not offer them death as a defeatist, cheap and easy option,” wrote the organization’s head, Teresa Lynch in the Catholic Herald.

She added that it has been shown that it is not pain but “fear of being a burden” that motivates most people to request suicide where the practice is legal.

“The worst pain,” Lynch said, “is the fear of abandonment by their carers. Do we now compound this fear by offering the abolishment of the burden of suffering together with patients’ lives in the increasing numbers now seen in other European countries?” 

Meanwhile Sarah Wooton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying recently defended Falconer’s bill, saying it is intended to create a “safeguarded choice”.

“There is also a patient safety issue,” Wooton told the Guardian newspaper. “We have no control over the law in Switzerland, but we can and should regulate and safeguard assisted dying in this country.”

Dignitas, a legally non-profit business, charges between €4,000 and €7,000 for its services, which include administration of a lethal cocktail of sedatives in a private apartment.

In 2007, the complaints from neighbors caused the facility to be evicted from the flat where it had been operating for the previous nine years. The organization that runs the facility estimated in 2011 that at least 1,000 people had ended their lives there.

A report at the time by Süddeutsche Zeitung said that other residents had come to describe it as a “house of horrors” from which a constant stream of body bags issued.

In 2006, the Swiss government declined a request to pass legislation restricting the practice of “death tourism,” saying that existing regulations by the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences were safeguarding the public. A referendum in the Zurich canton in May 2011 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to outlaw assisted suicide or to ban non-Swiss residents from using the facility.