Research - 18.06.2024 - 08:17 

"Stories have a major influence on the debate on assisted dying"

How do films, books and social media content influence policy and legislation on assisted dying? An interdisciplinary research team led by HSG literary scholar Anna Elsner is investigating this question. The findings from the project are intended to contribute to the social debate on assisted dying.

Caption: HSG researchers Alexander Meienberger, Anna Elsner and Marc Keller are part of the "Assisted Lab".

A man who is paralysed from the neck down following an accident, fights to end his life. When he is denied this in court, he takes his own life with the help of a friend. With this true story, the feature film "Mar Adentro" sparked a debate about the legalisation of assisted dying in conservative, Catholic Spain in the 2000s. "This is an example in which an artistically processed story had a strong influence on the political process," says Anna Elsner. She is HSG professor of French Cultural Studies and Medical Humanities. Since March 2023, an eight-member international research team led by her has investigating the question of how cultural products such as film, literature and other media influence the political debate and legislation surrounding assisted dying. They call their research group the "Assisted Lab", a reference to "assisted dying".

The research project is made possible by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council and will continue until 2028. "In our work, we look at different language regions and cultures as well as different legal systems. We want to make a differentiated contribution to social debates on assisted dying," says Elsner. She emphasises that the research project is neither for nor against assisted dying. "As scientists, we want to gain an objective insight into how death stories influence the legislative processes."

The debate on assisted dying is in flux worldwide

The researchers are thus joining a global debate. Emmanuel Macron, for example, currently wants to liberalise the restrictive assisted dying law in France. Opposition is coming from palliative care specialists, among others. According to Elsner, the trend in legislation internationally is to give individuals as much autonomy as possible in the matter of their own death.

The research team has now made an initial collection, a so-called "Living Archive of Assisted Dying", available on the platform To this end, they have sifted through around 300 pieces of media published after the year 2000 that tell stories about assisted dying. For the first time, the individual entries provide an overview of the political debates and even legal texts in which cultural productions were cited. "The archive is open to the public and is intended to be used by various groups," says HSG German scholar Marc Keller, who is viewing and analysing German-language and Dutch media for the project. Keller and Elsner also regularly exchange views with lawyers, politicians and doctors in expert interviews for the project.

In addition to the public archive, the team is also producing a podcast in which researchers, artists and legal experts will have their say. It also communicates news from the project via the social network X. There is also a button on the archive's website that external parties can use to draw the researchers' attention to media. 

New questions and debates about assisted dying on an ongoing basis

The team also includes media formats such as newsletters or videos on social networks in its analyses. "This is another reason why we are interested in dialogue with the public - due to the diversity of media, we can't keep track of all citations on the topic ourselves," says Keller. The "Assisted Lab" members have already engaged in dialogue with the public in panel discussions on cultural productions.

Various articles based on and about the archive have already been published and a final study is planned for publication in 2028. "Until then, we have to constantly adapt to current developments and debates surround-ing assisted dying and address new questions - that makes our work on this topic incredibly exciting," says Elsner.

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