Physician Assisted Suicide Undermines Efforts to Reduce Suicide

depressionLast week’s New York Times featured a haunting portrayal of suicide in America. Across the nation, suicide rates are on the rise—particularly among rural adolescents. But, as the article highlights, “suicide is a threat not just to the young. Rates over all rose 7 percent in metropolitan counties from 2004 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In rural counties, the increase was 20 percent.”

Wyoming has the highest suicide rates in the United States, with Montana, Alaska, Utah, and New Mexico not far behind. Curiously enough, Montana is one of the five states where physician assisted suicide is legal in the United States, and up until earlier this year, the practice was allowed in New Mexico. Just last month a groundbreaking new study found an overall increase of 6.3% in populations where physician assisted suicide is legalized.

What perhaps is most striking about this article is the overall message that suicide—anywhere and in any form—is a tragedy, most often the result of mental illness that should be treated, not promoted.

The article mentions various solutions and new programming that are either being piloted or encouraged to fight back against suicide trends: grassroots community support centers, identifying high risk patients at primary care providers, and the Affordable Care Act’s “Whole Patient” coverage, which includes mental health. For every situation and for every patient, the goal is the same: promote healing and health, and always aim to save their lives.

How egregious then that at the same time there are national efforts underway to reduce suicide that a national movement is taking place to make the practice more readily available—and with the aid of physicians. As we’ve well documented, almost half of the states in the country are considering or have considered laws that would legalize physician assisted suicide.

Studies in Oregon—where physician assisted suicide has been practiced the longest in the states—reveal that few patients who have died via physician assisted suicide ever received psychiatric evaluation. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that most doctors oppose the practice is that they know most patients should be treated for depression or mental illness. Offering them the lethal option of ending their lives is the gravest affront to their profession.

It’s encouraging to see a national spotlight on the issue of suicide—a heartbreaking reality that wreaks havoc on individuals, families, and communities. Any effort to reduce it is laudable, and these vulnerable parties deserve the highest standards of care and treatment. Movements for physician assisted suicide are an affront to these efforts and turn patients in need of treating into targets.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

Christopher White is the Director of Education and Programs for the Center for Bioethics and Culture.