Do Assisted Suicide Laws Promote Suicide?

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  1. Assisted suicide laws communicate the message that under especially difficult circumstances, some lives are not worth living. This message will be heard by not only those with a terminal illness but also any person struggling with the temptation to end his or her life.
  2. Suicide rates constitute a public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults and the tenth leading cause of death overall for individuals over the age of ten. Legalizing assisted suicide will worsen this crisis. It sends a message to teens and young adults that suicide is an appropriate response to difficult life circumstances.
  3. In October 2015, a study was published in the Southern Medical Journal showing that legalizing physician assisted suicide was associated with a 6.3% increase in total suicides, including assisted suicides.[1] The increase in total suicides among individuals 65 years and older was 14.5%. This is contrary to the assertions of Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who suggested that legalizing assisted suicide “might actually reduce the number of suicides and postpone the suicides that occur.”[2]
  4. The “Werther Effect,” which refers to the increase in clusters of suicides after publicized cases of suicide, is well validated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General have published strict journalistic guidelines for reporting on suicides to minimize this effect. Unfortunately, these guidelines were ignored in the case of Brittany Maynard, whose suicide was portrayed in the media as inspiring and even heroic.
  5. The number of deaths from assisted suicide in Oregon was 37% percent higher in October than the 2014 average. After Maynard’s death on November 1, 2014, deaths from assisted suicide spiked in November, rising 71.4% above the 2014 average.
  6. The overall suicide rate in Oregon has risen dramatically following the legalization of assisted suicide there. As of 2010, suicide rates were 35% higher in Oregon than the national average.
  7. Studies show that when an individual receives intervention during a crisis—for example, during the months of difficult adjustment after a new diagnosis of a serious or terminal disease—his or her risk of suicide is substantially decreased.
  8. Belgium and Switzerland, where assisted suicide is practiced, have the highest and second-highest suicide rates in Western Europe.
  9. In contrast to the “Werther Effect,” the publication of cases that convey a message of hope and perseverance in the face of adversity is associated with decreased suicide rates. This is known as the “Papageno Effect.”
  10. In the midst of suffering and decline we can still find courage, hope and even beauty. True compassion and mercy involve walking this difficult journey with our loved ones — a journey in which there simply are no shortcuts.

[1] Jones, DA and Paton, D. How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Raters of Suicide? South Med J. 2015; 108(10):599-604.

[2] Posner, RA. Aging and Old Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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