Swiss suicide assist doctor acquitted after a 5-year battle

GENEVA (AFP): A Swiss doctor who helped a healthy elderly woman to commit suicide alongside her seriously-ill husband was acquitted by a Geneva court after a five-year legal odyssey, court papers showed Tuesday.

Pierre Beck, who at the time of the couple’s deaths in April 2017 was vice-president of the assisted suicide provider group Exit in French-speaking western Switzerland, prescribed the barbiturate pentobarbital to the 86-year-old woman.

She had insisted she did not want to carry on living without her husband. An April 2020 judgement by Geneva’s cantonal criminal appeals court found Beck had committed a “serious offence” and that he “deliberately chose to break the law” in assisting her death, after helping the couple end their lives.

It upheld the initial against Beck, in which he faced a fine of 2,400 Swiss francs ($2,600) as well as a further suspended fine of 1,200 francs for infringing laws on the administering of medicine.

In December 2021, however, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland overruled the verdict and demanded the retired doctor be retried under laws on administration of narcotics, and sent the case back to the cantonal court.

In a ruling dated February 6 revealed by Swiss public broadcaster RTS and seen by AFP on Tuesday, the Geneva Criminal Appeal and Review Chamber found that “the sole fact of a physician prescribing pentobarbital to a person in good health, capable of discernment and wishing to die, does not constitute behaviour punishable by the law on narcotics.”

The ruling added, however, that the law did not mean a doctor could freely prescribe barbiturates without incurring civil or administrative liability. Under the directives of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, suicide assistance is reserved to those suffering serious illness of loss of physical capacity causing “unbearable suffering.”

The Geneva court said doctors wilfully violating that principle would leave themselves open to “potentially heavy disciplinary sanctions.” The ruling said the woman had said before a lawyer in 2015 that she wished Exit to provide assistance “to put an end to my days in this world, without delay” in the event of her surviving her husband.

Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal the verdict to the Federal Court. The debate around assisted suicide in Switzerland has calmed after long years of practice. Assisted suicide is framed by medical ethics codes, plus restrictions imposed by the organisations involved, such as the person’s age and illness.

Swiss law generally allows assisted suicide if the person commits the lethal act themselves — meaning doctors cannot administer deadly injections, for example — and the person consistently and independently articulates a wish to die.

Only those who, “driven by a selfish motive”, lend assistance to someone’s suicide are punishable.

Spielberg channels inner child at Berlin film festival

Three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg on Tuesday said childhood trauma had shaped almost all of his work as he prepared to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Berlinale film festival.

Spielberg, 76, said he was “obviously… very traumatised” by the experience of conflict in his family home and his parents divorce.

That was why “I’d be attracted to subjects like ‘Empire of the Sun’,” in which a young boy is torn away from his family in China and sent to a Japanese war camp, he said.

“I’m sure had my parents not gotten a divorce, I would not have chosen ‘Empire of the Sun’ as a film to direct,” he said.

The Hollywood A-lister also spoke of still feeling the same inspiration he did “as a little kid” when he makes films today.

“All those decades later, I feel… the same level of excitement when I find a book or a script or come up with an original idea that I think could make a good movie,” he said.

French director Francois Truffaut had ultimately persuaded him to make “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” by telling him he had “the heart of a child”, Spielberg said.

“Truffaut was the one that said, you gotta make a picture with kids,” he said. Spielberg is to collect an honorary Golden Bear for his life’s work on Tuesday evening at the Berlinale, Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year.

The festival is also screening a retrospective of his work, including classics such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List”, as well as his latest project, the semi-autobiographical film “The Fabelmans”. “The Fabelmans” tells the mostly true story of Spielberg’s own childhood and introduction to film-making in post-war America.

The film, starring Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, has already received wide critical acclaim, picking up top nods at both the 2023 Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards.

It has also been nominated for five Oscars. Talking about the film, Spielberg said it was the “most emotional” project he had ever worked on. “I was telling a story with a lot of funny parts but with a lot of parts that were very traumatising,” he said. The star director also revealed that he is pressing ahead with a television mini-series about Napoleon, based on a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick.

The project, first floated in 2013, is being planned as “a seven-part limited series”, he said.