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The truth about suicide tourism

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Suicide tourism might not be legal everywhere, but it is certainly real. There are suicide tourism businesses and people make money from suicide tourism. Rightly or wrongly, this is a growing type of niche tourism around the world. Read on to find out what suicide tourism is and what it is all about.

What is suicide tourism?

suicide tourism
Suicide tourism is a growing business in some parts of the world.

Suicide tourism is the term given to the act of travelling to a new destination in order to commit either suicide or assisted suicide. It can also encompass visiting somewhere to access drugs which would then be used for the person to take their own life.

Suicide tourism definition 

In the abstract of their article ‘Defining Physician-Assisted Suicide Tourism and Travel’ in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, Chung-En Yu, Jun Wen and Fang Meng say:

“The concept of suicide tourism was first mentioned in the late 1900s; however, definitions remain ambiguous. Although “tourism” is often associated with joyful experiences, it takes involves forms and purposes that may not be leisure- or pleasure-related, in which suicide tourism is unique and scarcely examined […] The notion is redefined by tourism practices related to physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Subcategories include suicide tourism and suicide travel, depending on whether a person returns to his or her own country/region after a PAS-related trip. In addition, suicide tourism applies to anyone interested in exploring PAS, including via an informational journey.”

Suicide tourism can further be defined as a form of tourism that is associated with the pro-euthanasia movement which involves specialist providers to assist in facilitating trips for suicide candidates to destinations where assisted suicide is legal.

What is assisted suicide?

suicide tourism
Suicide tourism is legal in some countries.

One reason that suicide tourism exists is because physician-assisted suicide is actually legal in some countries. People who have been suffering endlessly for years, have little quality of life and would rather die on their own terms turn to doctors in these countries to help them end things. This means that they can die with dignity on their own terms.

This is similar to euthanasia, where a doctor deliberately ends a patient’s life to avoid further suffering. However, with assisted suicide the patient has made the decision themselves. This can also be called voluntary euthanasia. People tend to prefer the term assisted suicide, however, as euthanasia has links to animals and the ‘putting down’ of beloved pets.

The following is taken from the NHS website:

Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under English law.

Assisted suicide

Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Trying to kill yourself is not a criminal act.


Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

In most countries, this is also the case. Laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia are similar worldwide, as killing people is a crime. However, there are exceptions to this rule….

Suicide tourism destinations

In most cases, suicide tourism involves travelling to one of a few select countries, because of the relaxed rules on assisted suicide. Below, I have outlined the major countries that are sought out by suicide tourists.

Assisted suicide in Switzerland

When you think of assisted suicide, you may think of Switzerland. They are one of the most well-known countries in terms of voluntary euthanasia. The law says that lethal drugs can be prescribed by doctors in Switzerland, but the recipient has to take an active role in the administering of these. Active euthanasia itself is still illegal.

suicide tourism
Suicide tourism is an organised process in several parts of the world.

Assisted suicide in Switzerland has to be done for non-selfish reasons. For example, this cannot be done for monetary gain. Companies involved in suicide tourism and other forms of assisted suicide in Switzerland must be not-for-profit. The outcome of this legal situation is various non-profit organisations across the country, which first became established in the 1980s.

The most famous is Dignitas, followed by Life Circle. Thousands of people have successfully ended their life, by choice, through using these organisations. This has spared them from a future of pain and suffering. Assisted suicide in Switzerland has allowed many people to die with dignity. One example is Anne Turner, a British doctor, who took her own life at a clinic in Zürich. She had been diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease, and chose to die on her own terms. You can read more about her story here.

There have often been calls for stricter regulations in terms of suicide tourism and assisted suicide in Switzerland. However, these have been knocked back time and time again. The country is happy to continue offering assisted suicide to both residents and foreigners. They are the most popular choice in terms of where to travel for this – particularly amongst Germans and Britons.

Assisted suicide for healthy couples

In 2007, Swiss organisation Dignitas began a journey to obtain legal permission for healthy foreigners (e.g people not suffering from a terminal illness or painful disability) to end their own lives in Switzerland too. This would include married couples in suicide pacts. Two years later, in 2009, healthy Sir Edward Downes took his own life in a clinic based just outside of Zürich alongside his terminally-ill wife, Joan.

Assisted suicide in the United States

People may also decide to travel to the USA for suicide toruism purposes. While euthanasia is illegal across the country, 10 states have legal assisted suicide in place. Suicide tourism here may be inter-state or international. The following states legally allow assisted suicide:

It is also of disputed status in Montana, currently.

As of a 2018 Gallup poll, 72% of Americans are in favour of assisted suicide. Most suicide tourism in the USA is domestic, with people travelling from one state to another to take their life. There is no point travelling from Europe to the USA when Switzerland is already there, and likewise many Americans wouldn’t travel all the way to Switzerland when they could choose somewhere much closer to home.

Assisted suicide in The Netherlands

While assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, there is actually no suicide torurism here. This is because a well-established relationship between the doctor and the patient needs to exist. So you couldn’t travel to the Netherlands to take your own life with the help of a doctor, as there would be no existing relationship between the two of you.

suicide tourism
There are many ethical debates about the existence of suicide tourism.

As of 2016, doctor-assisted deaths accounted for 4% of deaths across the Netherlands. There is a huge criteria that needs to be met in order for a person to be granted the right to die by assisted suicide here. According to “The New Regulation of Voluntary Euthanasia and Medically Assisted Suicide in the Netherlands” in the Int J Law Policy Family journal lays them out as:

  • the patient’s suffering is unbearable with no prospect of improvement
  • the patient’s request for euthanasia must be voluntary and persist over time (the request cannot be granted when under the influence of others, psychological illness or drugs)
  • the patient must be fully aware of his/her condition, prospects, and options
  • there must be consultation with at least one other independent doctor who needs to confirm the conditions mentioned above
  • the death must be carried out in a medically appropriate fashion by the doctor or patient, and the doctor must be present
  • the patient is at least 12 years old (patients between 12 and 16 years of age require the consent of their parents)

Assisted suicide in Mexico

Passive euthanasia is legal in three areas of Mexico. This means that someone can refuse to continue with life-saving treatment of any kind, or their next of kin can refuse on their behalf. This is legal in Mexico City, Aguascalientes, and Michoacán. Active euthanasia is still illegal despite attempts to have it decriminalised.

However, this is not to say that a type of suicide tourism doesn’t exist in Mexico. Pentobarbital, a drug commonly used for animal and human euthanasia as well as sometimes for human execution, can be bought in pet shops across Mexico. People tend to buy it in advance, when they are healthy, as a sort-of insurance policy for if they become terminally ill in the future. It only costs around $50 to buy enough Pentobarbital to kill you. Laws and regulations around the drug are particularly lax in Mexico, making it the pre-illness destination of choice for those who strongly believe in the right to die.

Ethics surrounding suicide tourism

There are obviously a lot of ethical questions that come into play when discussing suicide tourism. Many people believe in the right to die on your own terms. But many people see these ‘mercy killings’ as no better than murder. So, depending on who you ask, there are different answers to these ethical questions.

Humans have bodily autonomy, and as such many people believe we should be able to choose when our life ends. Life does have a natural end, with death being the only certainty in life, so many people argue that if someone doesn’t want to prolong their life with drugs, treatment and medication then why should they? People who are ‘for’ assisted suicide and therefore suicide tourism believe that it can be controlled, and that it is wanted and needed by many.

However, those who argue against assisted suicide say that it is a slippery slope. It could be used as an excuse for killing someone who didn’t actually want to die. They propose alternatives such as hospice care and strong pain relief.

The ethics of suicide tourism aren’t too far removed from the ethics of assisted suicide. The only added question to ask is whether anyone is making a profit from someone travelling to another state or country to end their life, and whether this is morally sound.

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