Death tourism: Travelling for life-ending procedures

17 September 2014

This was how the final morning in the life of Dr John Elliot was reported on the front page of the Sydney Morning Heraldin January 2007. Dr Elliot, from NSW, was gravely ill with multiple myeloma, and had travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland for assisted suicide. About 200 people seek assisted suicide in Switzerland each year, including a cohort of foreign nationals, and a spokesman for Dignitas recently said that it has so far helped over 1,000 foreigners to die. 2 Earlier this year, a referendum proposing a ban on both assisted suicide and so-called ‘suicide tourism’ was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in the Canton of Zurich, with 78 per cent of voters opposing the ban on euthanasia for foreigners. 3 In a magazine issue devoted to international torts and travel law – which for most people is associated with exploration, business opportunities, relaxation, the living of life – this article focuses on a type of travel that has come to be known, arrestingly, as ‘death tourism’. Of course, it is commonplace for people to find themselves travelling on death-related missions. Most such trips involve visiting a dying relative, attending a funeral, or visiting a grave. Some people travel to a special destination to suicide spectacularly.4 Some will travel with the intention of importing a lethal medicine, such as the notorious barbiturate pentobarbital,5 to facilitate a suicide at home. And every now and then, gravely ill people like Dr Elliott will seek to travel overseas for a life-ending procedure in one of the few jurisdictions where this is lawful. This article looks at the reasons why some people travel to die in these circumstances, what legal barriers might prevent more of us from doing the same, and whether recent developments in UK law might be re-played here, creating, if not a ‘right to die’, a right to travel to die without interference.