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Suicide Contagion

I have often argued that, as a matter of logic and intuition, the widespread legalization of assisted suicide will increase both the rate of assisted suicides and the rate of unassisted suicides. After all, many people conflate what is “legal” with what is “right.” Once a state gives its imprimatur to assisted suicide as a way of alleviating suffering and providing “medical aid in dying,” as it is euphemistically called, an ever-increasing number of people will resort to that means of ending their lives. And indeed, some recent studies suggest that in places where assisted suicide is legal, both assisted suicides and unassisted suicides increase.

Advocates of assisted suicide disagree, of course. One argument—which the media often parrots—holds that people with suicidal ideation not caused by terminal illness are unlikely to be influenced by legalization of assisted suicide because “medical aid in dying” is a treatment and not “suicide.” This argument has never rung true for me. That is simply not how the human mind works, particularly when we are in extremis. It has always seemed to me that suicidal people are likely to think that society’s approval of suicides for the terminally ill also applies to them, even if the cause of their existential crisis and misery falls outside the current parameters of legalization.

Even though overall suicide rates have risen considerably throughout the West in recent years, few studies have been conducted to determine whether the legalization of assisted suicide has had any effect on this concerning trend. That is slowly beginning to change. In 2015, a study published in the Southern Medical Law Journal applied CDC suicide data from states where assisted suicide was legal (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana, where legality remains a matter of dispute). The authors reported that “PAS [physician-assisted suicide] is associated with an 8.9% increase in total suicide rates” (including assisted suicides), and when “state-specific time trends” are included, “the estimated increase is 6.3%.” The authors concluded: “The introduction of PAS seemingly induces more self-inflicted deaths than it inhibits.”

Read more at First Things

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