The pilot study, published online this week in the Journal of Medical Ethics, used the databases of The Institute of Legal Medicine in Zurich to track the paths of 611 patients as they traveled from their home countries to Switzerland to commit suicide. Their ages ranged from 23 to 97 and 58% of them were women. In total, there were 86 cases in 2009, which rose to 172 in 2012 (the most recent year available).
These "suicide tourists" came from 31 countries from around the world, with Germany sending almost 44% of them. The US ranked fifth with 21 cases since 2008. And, although there was quite a lot of variation in people's underlying diseases, 47% of "tourists" cited neurological conditions, while 37% reported cancer. But, almost a third of patients included here gave more than one disease as their reason for seeking assisted suicide.
The law in Switzerland doesn't firmly regulate assisted suicide the way many other countries do. Assisted suicide in Switzerland has been legal since 1942, but the specific circumstances under which it's allowed aren't quite black-and-white. In U.S. states such as Oregon, however, the Death With Dignity Act allows a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient for the purpose of ending his or her life. But, the patient must be able to demonstrate that he or she is an Oregon resident in order to take part, making the concept of suicide "tourism" not applicable here.
One thing these researchers were interested in was whether or not Switzerland's suicide tourism could influence assisted-suicide legislation in the home countries of these patients. And, as it turns out, the two countries that sent the most suicide tourists (Germany and the U.K.) have both recently revisited their assisted-suicide laws. In the U.K., Debbie Purdy's case led the government to make it clear that her husband would not be penalized for helping her plan her death. And, now that the death of Robin Williams has launched a countrywide discussion of suicide, we'll continue to grapple with this gray area ourselves.