December 6, 2022

Does legalising assisted suicide really decrease non-assisted suicide?

Legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia increases the risk of suicide, according to recent research by the UK’s Anscombe Bioethics Centre.

This contradicts the conventional wisdom about jurisdictions where euthanasia or assisted suicide have been legalised. The Swiss assisted suicide organisation Dignitas, for instance, has argued, “the option of an assisted/accompanied suicide without having to face the severe risks inherent in commonly-known suicide attempts is one of the best methods of preventing suicide attempts and suicide. It may sound paradoxical: in order to prevent suicide attempts, one needs to say ‘yes’ to suicide.”

However, in a paper, “Suicide Prevention: Does Legalising Assisted Suicide Make Things Better Or Worse?”, David Albert Jones reviews several studies from Europe, Canada and the United States in peer-reviewed journals. He finds that

  • Rates of euthanasia or assisted suicide (EAS) increase significantly
  • Rates of self-initiated deaths (EAS plus non-assisted suicide) increase significantly
  • The increase in self-initiated death is disproportionately high in women
  • Rates of non-assisted suicide also increase, in some cases significantly

This is a controversial finding, but what does not appear to be controversial is that the rates of non-assisted suicide relative to non-EAS states do not fall.

The available evidence all points in the same direction: in relation to society’s efforts to deter suicide, whatever good legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide might do, on balance, it does more harm than good.

“This is not to deny,” writes Professor Jones, “that some people may find the presence of EAS makes them feel more secure, and less inclined to suicide but there will also be people who find its presence makes them feel less secure as if they have to justify their continued existence.”

The introduction of EAS into law and medical practice is therefore a threat to suicide prevention.

Professor Jones writes: “If EAS is acknowledged to be a form of suicide, albeit typically less violent or impulsive than many other forms of suicide, then the imperative to prevent suicide also applies to how cases of EAS are reported. These deaths should not be presented as necessary or inevitable and should not be romanticised. Even where it is legal EAS should not be advertised or encouraged. Above all, it should not be stated or implied that there is shame attached to living with disability or illness or in receiving help and support. It must never be implied that human dignity can only be recovered by a self-initiated death.”