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The Practice of Assisting Suicide is on the Rise in the U.S. and Abroad

by | Mar 29, 2012

By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

Jennifer Popik, J.D. Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

On March 27th , the government of Switzerland released a report on the practice of assisting suicide with a dramatic conclusion: five out of every 1,000 resident deaths now involve assisting suicide.  Swiss authorities recorded a steady rise of assisted suicides over the decade that records were kept.

While assisting suicide is legal in only a tiny handful of jurisdictions both in the U.S. and abroad, the Swiss practice operates extra-legally.  Assisting suicide in Switzerland is technically illegal, but the law on the matter punishes only those with selfish motives–which has turned out to be nearly impossible to prove in Swiss courts.  This has, in practice, led to a system where anyone can assist in a suicide with no essentially no restriction on who can utilize suicide. 

There is data that shows those with treatable depression or even dementia frequently die from assisted suicide.  Assisting suicide occurs for nearly any reason, and is certainly not thought of in Switzerland as an “option of last resort.” 

According to the Swiss report, “Assisted suicide is resorted to when life no longer appears worth living for the person concerned, in particular due to a serious physical illness.” This sort of standardless direction from the government has made Switzerland attractive to outside groups who promote suicide.  Over the past decades, “suicide tourism” had become a booming business in Switzerland, where groups (primarily Dignitas) arrange trips for potential suicide candidates.

The Swiss report figures were reported to have been compiled as part of a government effort to reel in these suicide tourism groups.  However, the culture of death in Switzerland has become so pervasive that 84% of voters rejected a ban on assisted suicide last May, and 78% rejected restricting the suicide tourism. 

Meanwhile, in the U.S. a report from the Oregon Department of Health showed a similar trend.  In the state where the practice of assisted suicide enters its 15th year, there were more prescriptions and deaths than in any previous year. 

From 2010-2011, the number of lethal prescriptions written increased from 97 to 114, and the reported deaths increased from 65 to 71. Over at “Physician-Assisted Suicides in Oregon Increasing in Number with Less Information” is an analysis of the report by the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation.

PCCEF notes among other disturbing trends that “some individuals had the prescription for longer than a year before ingesting the drugs, far longer than the law’s 6-months life expectancy guidelines” – in one case for 872 days, that only one “patient” was referred for psychiatric evaluation even though a department study had shown 25% of those requesting assisted suicide to be depressed, and that, contrary to general public assumptions, most of the victims were not motivated by any concern about adequate pain control.  

This practice of doctor-prescribed death is only legal in a few jurisdictions including Oregon, Washington, and potentially the state of Montana, where the practice may have some legal protection.  Even so, the main pro-assisted suicide lobby group, Compassion and Choices was promoting doctor prescribed death in many states.  Most recently, the Vermont legislature, in a hard fought battle headed by a coalition of disability rights groups, has killed a bill to legalize the practice.  In nearby Massachusetts, despite opposition by the state medical association, disability rights, church and pro-life groups, doctor prescribed death will appear on the 2012 ballot as an initiative question. 

(See “Physician-Assisted Suicides in Oregon Increasing in Number and with Less Information.”)

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Categories: Assisted Suicide