22 Sep Legalizing assisted dying can actually increase suicides
One of the arguments we hear is that assisted dying will bring down the number of violent suicides. It will provide a more peaceful death to patients in unbearable suffering who would otherwise have violently killed themselves. For other patients, the mere option of assisted dying (even if it will never be effectuated) is said to be a reassuring thought that will keep them from killing themselves.
I admit that these arguments may hold in individual cases. However, on the whole, the argument is mistaken.
In the Netherlands, assisted dying gradually became available for patients commonly considered to be at risk of committing suicide: psychiatric patients, people with chronic illnesses, dementia patients, and elderly people without a terminal disease.
But instead, the suicide numbers went up: from 1,353 in 2007, they went up to 1,811 in 2019, a rise of 33.8 percent. In surrounding countries, most of which have no assisted dying practice, the suicide numbers went down. Germany, with a population much like the Dutch in terms of age, economy, and religion, saw its suicide numbers decrease by 10 percent in the same period.
One hypothesis I increasingly accept as an academic and as someone who worked for almost ten years in monitoring and reviewing assisted dying cases for the Dutch authorities is the normalising effect that legalising assisted dying has had on the general population.
We already know from the literature that when one person takes their own life, it can be a catalyst for others. Indeed, there are over 50 peer-reviewed studies reaching the same conclusion in what has been dubbed suicide contagion, copycat suicides or the Werther Effect. Not without reason, and based on advice from the World Health Organisation, the media go to great lengths to censor details that could trigger further suicides. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about their carefulness when reporting assisted suicide stories, the great majority of which express an ill-informed and naïve sympathy for assisted dying.
The Netherlands should act as a cautionary tale…
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