ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland is looking to change the law on assisted suicide to make sure it is only used as a last resort by the terminally ill, and to limit so-called "death tourism," the government said on Wednesday.
"We have no interest, as a country, in being attractive for suicide tourism," Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference in the capital Berne.
A rise in the number of foreigners seeking to end their lives in Switzerland, and a study last year showing that more and more people seeking assisted suicides in the country do not suffer from a terminal illness, have provoked heated debate.
The cabinet -- which is divided on the emotive issue -- sent two proposals into the legislative process for consultation, which will last until March 1: one for tighter regulation and the other for an outright ban.
The justice ministry said the government fundamentally did not want to change the liberal system, but that assisted suicide organizations were increasingly testing the boundaries of the law and there was an urgent need for new guidelines.
The issue gained more prominence in July when the British conductor Edward Downes and his wife ended their lives at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland.
In British law, helping someone commit suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail. However, since 1992, about 100 British citizens have ended their lives at the Dignitas facility without their relatives being prosecuted.
Switzerland's two main right-to-die groups, Exit and Dignitas, both said they opposed the government proposals and would seek a referendum on the topic if needed.
The government also proposed a complete ban on organized assisted suicide, though it would prefer tighter legislation, the justice ministry said.
"This option rests on the belief that individuals working in assisted suicide organizations are never actually motivated by purely altruistic reasons, and may develop a close relationship with the suicidal person," it said in a statement.
"Suicide must only be a last resort. The government believes that protection of human life must be uppermost," the justice ministry added.
Assisted suicide should be restricted to the terminally ill and not be available to chronically or mentally ill individuals, the ministry said, adding the government wanted to promote palliative care and suicide prevention.
The new rules would also "prevent organized assisted suicide becoming a profit-driven business," it said.
Assisted suicide -- helping someone to die -- has been allowed in Switzerland since the 1940s if performed by a non-physician who has no vested interest in the death.
Euthanasia, or "mercy killing," is legal only in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the U.S. state of Oregon.
In July, Exit agreed rules to govern assisted suicide with prosecutors in Zurich that it hoped might eventually form the basis of national regulation.
Dignitas, which mainly helps foreigners from Germany, France and Britain, has rejected the rules as too restrictive.
Additional reporting by Sven Egenter; Editing by Michael Roddy