Last week, the folks from the Manhattan Declaration (whose key concern is freedom of religion) sent an email with a series of links—perhaps expanding their remit a smidge—one of which dealt with doctor-assisted suicide. “Doctor-assisted suicide is contagious,” it said, along with this: “Doctor-assisted suicide increases overall suicide rates among the non-terminally ill everywhere it’s made legal.” And it also linked to a 2015 article on the subject from the Southern Medical Journal.
The SMJ authors were looking at whether overall and non-assisted suicide rates were different in states with legalized assisted death than in other U.S. states. By their own admission, they did not have as much information as they would have liked. They reviewed available information between 1990 and 2013. Two of the states were Vermont, which legalized assisted suicide in 2013 and had no cases that year, and Montana, which was not keeping count of assisted suicides. That left them with assisted suicide data from Oregon (since 1998) and Washington state (since 2008). (Since then, assisted suicide has also been made legal in Colorado, D.C., Hawaii, and California.)
In those two states, the total number of suicides and the number of non-assisted suicides had increased after the respective dates of legalization of assisted suicide. However, the number of non-assisted suicides had also increased in the other states combined. When I looked at their graph of the data, going back to 1990, there had been a decline in non-assisted suicide in Oregon, Washington, and other states between 1990 and 2000, with increases after that. The number of these deaths per 100,000 population were higher in Oregon and Washington (and, indeed, much higher in Montana) than in the other states, but the slopes of the curves—the rates of increase—in Oregon and Washington looked similar to the other states. Montana’s increase appeared sharply higher, but it’s hard to conclude anything about assisted suicide in that case because there were no data (nor for Vermont).
The authors commented that there had been estimates of how many surreptitious assisted suicides may have occurred outside of legalization, but admitted that firm conclusions were not possible. They attempted to establish a statistical association between assisted suicide and nonassisted suicide, but the argument seemed inconclusive. Follow the above link, read the article, and judge for yourself.
The core conclusion was that assisted suicide in its early years had not decreased overall suicide rates, as some of its advocates had argued it would. Any relationship may become clearer as more information is available, assuming that numbers of assisted and non-assisted suicides are consistently and completely counted and recorded. But that assumption is questionable at best.
In the meantime, it is important not to overinterpret limited data sets. It’s also important to remember there are at least 5 reasons why assisted suicide is a bad idea: it fundamentally alters the nature of medicine as a healing, life-preserving art and profession; its application cannot be reliably limited to those who freely request death or who are terminally ill (the slippery slope); it risks diverting energy and priority from true palliative care; if understood as a “right to die,” or a “right to be made dead,” it creates a duty for someone else to kill; and the notion of a “right to die” is self-contradictory if rights rest on preservation of life and well-being, as is the classical (i.e., pre-20th century) understanding.
In 2012, in his essay “Four Myths about Doctor-Assisted Suicide,” Ezekiel Emanuel wrote: “Patients themselves say that the primary motive [for assisted suicide] is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control. Dutch researchers, for a report published in 2005, followed 138 terminally ill cancer patients and found that depressed patients were four times more likely to request euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Nearly half of those who requested euthanasia were depressed.
“In this light, physician-assisted suicide looks less like a good death in the face of unremitting pain and more like plain old suicide. Typically, our response to suicidal feelings associated with depression and hopelessness is not to give people the means to end their lives but to offer them counseling and caring.”
And “plain old suicide” is, as we know, a problem that is getting worse all over the country.