Coinciding with the shocking suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain is the news from the CDC that the American suicide rate has risen by nearly 30 percent since 1999. Suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death, prompting a thorough soul searching by the American public. There are many reasons for this rise, including the opioid epidemic, adverse economic conditions, and growing rates of depression among young people. Expanding suicide prevention hotlines and mental health initiatives are laudable and necessary responses. But when contemplating the best policies and prescriptions to fight this scourge, it would be wrong to ignore the effect of changes to the legality of suicide.
Critics of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) laws have long noted that the law is a moral teacher, and that to legalize something is, in effect, to normalize it. PAS supporters have exalted suicide as simply another reasonable choice, undermining the longstanding cultural, religious, and philosophical restraints around the practice, which have functioned as protections for those with depression. But several studies have shown that having moral or religious objections to suicide reduces the probability that depressed people will act on their suicidal feelings. Rather than making a narrow argument for “hard cases,” PAS activists promote the idea of a broad, inviolable “right to death.” For a public still arguing over who has a right to life, such activism seems especially dark and dismal.
Evidently, the American people are listening. Apparently, they are changing their minds about suicide. The passage of PAS laws in one jurisdiction after another indicates a systemic, culture-wide erosion of religious and moral objections to suicide. It seems Americans are starting to see suicide as a normal, reasonable, and even compassionate choice in the face of suffering and hopelessness.
But the normalization of self-destruction has casualties beyond the terminally ill, and includes the depressed and anxious who internalize the idea that destroying themselves is a logical response to their pain. The young are especially vulnerable, as they have no life experience of recovering from what seem to be crushing blows, and have not learned that present miseries are almost sure to pass.
The constant argument from assisted suicide activists relates to “quality of life.” Anyone who has ever been clinically depressed will flatly tell you that their quality of life was as low as their hope of recovery. It is understandable that they might be swayed by arguments that self-destruction is perfectly permissible once a person’s quality of life is low enough. This attitude is especially troubling to activists for those with disabilities, who understandably view this as an attack: They are rightly afraid that the disabled may be most vulnerable to societal pressure and the idea that some lives are just not worth living and ought to be ended.
A widely cited 2015 study reported in the Southern Medical Journal showed a strong association between the legalization of PAS and overall suicide rates. The study evaluated suicide rates in states before and after PAS was legalized, finding that “legalizing PAS was associated with a significant increase in total suicides” and that rates rose by an average of 6.7 percent after the practice was decriminalized in each state.
And this study was before the recent and massive public relations campaigns of the assisted suicide lobby. The PAS lobby is active in every state, and it is a rare legislative season that doesn’t include an attempt to pass PAS laws. While the practice may only be legal in a handful of jurisdictions now, the attempt to normalize suicide is constant and ubiquitous.
It is good that the hearts and minds of the American public are turned to the suicide epidemic sweeping our country, as dark and difficult as such thoughts may be. But it would also be good to reconsider our societal rush down the assisted-suicide road. For the further down this road we go, the more we create a culture comfortable with suicide, threatening broad swaths of society, and bringing more pain, not less.
Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a Senior Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association.