Isn't assisted suicide really suicide?

By Alex SchadenbergExecutive Director - Euthanasia Prevention Coalition published 20th Jan 2015 

Yesterday Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister in the UK, announced at a mental health conference, the overnment's intention to reduce suicide to zero by working in cooperation with every part of the National Health Service and other agencies.

According to The Telegraph news, Clegg is modeling this suicide prevention program on the successful program that was implemented in Detroit Michigan. The article stated:

... every suicide is preventable if NHS trusts provide better care for people suffering from depression and other serious illnesses.

The "zero suicides" target can be met through simple measures, such as keeping in touch with patients who have been discharged from mental health wards and creating a plan so that patients and their friends know whom to contact if they are placing themselves in danger.

Police and transport agencies will be called on to examine whether safety measures can be put in place in "hot zones" where high numbers of suicides occur, such as shopping centres or bridges.

The plans have been inspired by a mental health programme in Detroit, US, where a "zero suicide" commitment resulted in no-one in the care of state depression services taking their lives in two years.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and similar organizations encourages the UK government to implement a goal of ending suicide. We recognize that suicide is 100% preventable.

At the same time the British House of Lords continued their debate on Lord Falconer's assisted dying bill, a bill that proposes to legalize assisted suicide in the UK.

In response to the assisted suicide debate, Dr Kevin Yuill asks the question - isn't assisted dying really suicide? Yuill states in his article:

Yet the campaign against suicide throws up questions about assisted dying, which was debated in the House of Lords last week. Here we find another example of the "massive taboo" that people are scared to talk about. That is: isn't assisted dying really suicide? How can we wage a war against suicide for some whilst encouraging it as a legitimate choice for others? ... it is difficult to argue that what is being proposed is not essentially suicide.

Ingesting poison in a room with the intent to die does not magically become "assisted dying" if the poison is prescribed. Over the border in Scotland, the similar proposed legislation was called - less euphemistically - the "Assisted Suicide" bill.

If assisted dying is suicide, then the effect of the Falconer Bill is very clear. It will treble suicides amongst the terminally. Extrapolating from the example of Oregon, Dignity in Dying estimate that 1000 people per year will opt for ingesting poison if the Falconer Bill passes. But they estimate that there are currently about 330 suicides by terminally-ill people in Britain.

Just as problematically, the Falconer Bill would institutionalize exactly what the WHO inveighed against - suicide as a method of coping with personal problems. Surely, its message to those who confront huge difficulties in life, who are depressed about what the future might bring, and who find it difficult to cope, is to take the easy way out.

Clegg's plan to reduce suicides to zero will hardly be a success if we encourage a segment of our population to "choose the circumstances of their own deaths". Perhaps the first step in this ambitious plan to reduce suicides, then, should be to reject the Falconer Bill.

Yuill is correct. There is also evidence that legalizing assisted suicide has a suicide contagion effect.

Statistics indicate that the suicide rate in Oregon was decreasing during the 1990's but since 2000 the suicide rate has increased faster than the national average. In 2007 the Oregon suicide rate was 35% above the national average and in 2010 it was 41% above the national average. These statistics indicate that legalizing assisted suicide does not reduce the suicide rate but rather leads to a suicide contagion effect.

Dr Kevin Yuill is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sunderland, and author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization, which will be out in paperback on 26 January.