We have recently heard from several proponents of assisted suicide that concerns about possible suicide contagion in Oregon are unfounded because the youth suicide rate there has gone down.
Here is a link to the latest report of the Oregon Health Division on suicide in that state: (http://public.health.oregon.gov/DiseasesConditions/InjuryFatalityData/Documents/Suicide%20in%20Oregon%20Trends%20and%20risk%20factors.pdf).
Reading the report raises several questions in our minds:
1. Do the proponents of legalizing assisted suicide in Vermont think only teen suicides need to be prevented? The facts about suicides in Oregon other than the assisted ones that the law defines away are quite clear. The Oregon Report states that suicides among the general population declined through the 1990s, began to rise in 2000, rose 8% between 2000 and 2007, and were 35% above the national average in 2007 (See Report, pages 4 and 9). Though many other factors may have contributed to the rise, it is also consistent with the phenomenon of suicide contagion, defined in a report from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as ” a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide” (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00031539.htm). The CDC report also states that this dangerous exposure to suicide can be through remote means such as the media , and the purpose of the report was to caution that media reports of suicide should be carefully tailored to avoid triggering contagion. Among a list of things that suicide reporting should avoid, the CDC includes “Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends”. It goes on to state that, “Presentation of suicide as a means of coping with personal problems… may suggest suicide as a potential coping mechanism to at-risk persons.” No one has produced any evidence to disprove the possibility that the constant reporting on assisted suicide, including the publication of required annual reports by the state of Oregon, has suggested suicide as a solution to other problems for the growing number of Oregonians taking their own lives. We simply do not and cannot know that legalized assisted suicide has not played a role in this rise.
2. Where is the evidence that teen suicide rates in Oregon have actually dropped since legalization? The Oregon report shows that suicide rates for Oregonians between the ages of 10 and 24, while exhibiting a downward trend between 1995 and either 1998 (for males) or 1999 (for females), have been essentially flat since that time. They haven’t gone up, as have suicides among other age groups, but they haven’t gone down either. See the graph on p. 11 of the Oregon report. We did find one report showing that teen suicides have gone down in counties with anti-bullying programs, but in 2006 the Oregon youth suicide rate was still above the national average (http://public.health.oregon.gov/PreventionWellness/SafeLiving/SuicidePrevention/Documents/factsheet.pdf).
3. If, as proponents assert, legalizing assisted suicide will prevent horrifyingly violent suicides using firearms, why has it not done that in Oregon? Ten years after legalization, guns remained the primary means of male suicide in Oregon, accounting for 62% of deaths.
4. Since it is so easy to commit suicide using prescription or over the counter drugs that this is the primary means of non-assisted suicide among Oregon women, why do the proponents of assistance in suicide assert that they will lose a “right” if assistance remains illegal? Oregon women committing suicide outside the assisted suicide law tended to poison themselves, usually with overdoses of prescription drugs; thus, they died in exactly the same way as do the sick people who receive assistance in suicide from doctors. The report requires two pages to list all the drugs used. A few people committed suicide using drugs available over the counter. Most used drugs prescribed for other purposes. From this fact, we know that assistance is not necessary; the drugs are readily available. To those who say their “right” to commit suicide will be denied if assistance in suicide remains illegal, we say that they already, in our opinion most unfortunately, have that ability. The widespread use of drugs to commit suicide in Oregon also raises once more the question of whether there is suicide contagion there. Could these drug-induced suicides be considered copy cat suicides? Could the use of drugs have been suggested to these unfortunate people by the widespread publicity surrounding assisted suicide by means of prescribed drugs?
Suicide prevention hotlines and websites teach us to treat any statement of intent to commit suicide as a cry for help. True Dignity Vermont believes our society should offer people with problems they perceive as insuperable suicide prevention efforts, including, for the terminally ill, good palliative care. To offer assistance in any suicide is to tell a desperate person, terminally ill or not, that life under some conditions is not worth living. We simply cannot do that.