Saturday, July 14, 2007

NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) and Assisted Suicide

For nine years, the headquarters of Dignitas, the assisted-suicide organisation has been the centre of Switzerland's alleged "suicide tourism"; a total of 700 people have taken their lives here.The residents of the housing block where Dignitas is located have called for a halt to the practice of assisted suicide:

"Gloria Sonny, 55, who has lived in the building for six years - or, as she calls it, "under the same roof as death" - headed a petition calling for Dignitas to go. "I'm not against assisted suicide," she said, "but this is a place where people live. It's the wrong place to help people die. I don't see why I should pay with the quality of my life because Switzerland deals with the topic in a more liberal way than other countries."

She said the building smelt of death and that she suffered nightmares that she would be forced into one of the "death flats" against her will and made to drink a fatal cocktail."

To read on, click here.

1 comment:

Kevin T. Keith said...

From what I can gather from the story, this is taking place in a mixed-use office/apartment block, where small businesses share the building with residential apartments. Dignitas has offices there, but has also rented an apartment which they use as a facility for assisted suicides, in the same area in which others are simply living their daily lives.

Some of the residents' complaints seem to be mere personal disaffection. The woman who claims the building "smells of death", and that she has nightmares about being killed, is clearly creating her own problems. (Do we shut down other medical facilities because people dream about them?) The resident who complained that "once I saw a coffin in the backyard" also probably needs to calm down a bit. I also note that the resident who initiated the drive to eject Dignitas moved into the building three years after they had begun offering assisted suicide services there; she now insists that they have to go because "I don't see why I should pay with the quality of my life" for their ability to operate in that way.

On the other hand, one would not normally expect to find corpses in the elevators of one's apartment building at the rate of 3-4 per week, or the streets blocked with emergency vehicles that often as well. It sounds like Dignitas did very poor planning, and likely little community outreach, in setting up this service. At the least, its impact on the community may have reached a more serious level as the pace of its operations has (apparently) accelerated over the years.

The ability of communities to block needed services out of mere distaste, however, is also a problem. This service is legal in Switzerland, and clearly in demand. By forcing it out of the site where it had legally been operating for almost a decade, and establishing the precedent that local residents can block controversial medical services simply by complaining about them, they may effectively be imposing the same kind of "heckler's veto" on assisted suicide that the right wing has been seeking over abortion in the US.

The article quotes the Dignitas Secretary as saying that "if he failed to find a new site . . . the organisation would 'set up in a caravan' [mobile trailer], giving Dignitas the freedom to move around." In other words, the heckler's veto may succeed in driving assisted suicide services out of an established, stable, home-like setting into the back of a van - exactly the low-rent setting that everyone so sniffily insisted was wrong with Jack Kevorkian's procedures. I presume we will then hear further complaints about "lack of dignity" in this new venue.

The residents of this apartment block may have some valid complaints, though the article also hits the nail on the head by noting their unmistakeable "NIMBY" streak. But that is the sort of issue that can be addressed through zoning regulations and proper planning (as well as some common sense: if you don't want to live in a building with a "death flat", don't move into one). Allowing people to shut down a legal service desired by, apparently, hundreds of people a year because they either oppose it or just don't want to be around it seems to me both unfair and a very bad policy precedent.