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Since Jack Kevorkian first made headlines in 1990, the media have touted assisted suicide by the dying and severely disabled in positive, sometimes even glowing, terms.
Actually, “touted” may be too weak a word. For two decades, the media have repeatedly presented emotional narratives of very ill or disabled people who “just want to die,” along with sympathetic depictions of the doctors who “just want to help,” filtered through the ideological prism of issue advocates seeking to legalize doctor-prescribed death.
These deaths are usually described in as a matter of the deceased “taking control,” or “dying on her own terms,” and other such laudatory language. In an unsettling bit of spectacle, actual assisted suicides—even acts of active euthanasia—have been aired on television with great fanfare on CBS’60 Minutes and the BBC.
Even as we support suicide for some, we work hard to prevent it for others. But shouldn’t all receive the same kind of prevention services that can save lives? Indeed, isn’t promoting or applauding when someone ends their own life likely to increase the number of suicides?
That’s certainly the position of the World Health Organization, which has published media guidelines that strongly recommend against romanticizing or otherwise providing positive or detailed reportage about all suicides. For example, WHO urges media not to publish photographs or suicide notes, and to avoid reporting specific details of the method used, offering simplistic reasons for the act, or glorifying or sensationalizing it in any way. Yet, all of these mistakes—and more—are ubiquitous in media reporting about assisted suicide.
Of course, the media also reports on suicide prevention—although rarely in the context of assisted suicide. Indeed, media outlets seem utterly oblivious that sympathetic reportage about assisted suicide works in direct opposition to suicide prevention. This dichotomy isn’t solely the fault of clueless journalists. The suicide-prevention community is at fault, as well.
This wasn’t always so. Back when Kevorkian began his campaign, suicide-prevention leaders spoke out forcefully against him. But that was a long time ago. These days, the suicide-prevention community is mostly silent about the political agenda that actively undermines the universal prevention meme.
Here’s a recent example: Quebec is on the verge of legalizing “aid in dying,” in which doctors would be authorized to lethally inject ill and disabled patients near “the end of life” (an undefined term) who ask to die. As this law moves ever closer to enactment, the Quebec Association for Suicide Prevention just launched its “You’re Important to Us” suicide awareness campaign, hoping to save the lives of suicidal people.
That’s laudable. But what about ill and disabled people whose suicides will be completed by doctors if Quebec’s euthanasia legislation is passed? Aren’t they also “important” to the Association? Apparently not: I searched the group’s website and found not one statement opposing assisted suicide/euthanasia generally, or the legislation specifically.
Unfortunately, that’s par for the course. In the face of adamant and repeated advocacy to legalize assisted suicide—with three states now statutorily legalizing doctor-prescribed death—the prevention community has had little to say. To take another example, in 2012 the Surgeon General of the United States issued a new suicide prevention policy—which mostly got attention because it paid special heed to at-risk gay youth.
But the policy utterly failed to address the ubiquitous suicide promotion by euthanasia/assisted suicide activists. Thus, the Surgeon General’s “2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention” suggested “positive public dialogue” to “counter shame” and “build public support for suicide prevention.” It also urged the community to “address the needs of vulnerable groups” properly “tailored to the cultural and situational contexts in which they are offered to seek to eliminate disparities.”
Ironically, it also urged that suicide prevention: “Promote efforts to reduce access to lethal means among individuals with identified suicide risks.” Assisted suicide, of course, explicitly grants access to “lethal means among individuals with identified suicide risks.”
So, did the policy speak out against assisted suicide advocacy? Did it urge doctors not to write—and pharmacists not to fill—lethal prescriptions because that puts the means of self-killing intentionally in the hands of the suicidal? Is the pope Buddhist?
I am not saying that the suicide-prevention community is complicit in assisted suicide. But I do believe they are partially neglecting their calling. The lives of people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other serious and terminal illnesses are just as worthy of protection as those of suicidal people who may have other reasons for wanting to end their lives.
If suicide-prevention organizations want to play it safe by focusing on non-contentious issues such as youth suicide, or if they worry that their organizations might lose funding by engaging the emotionally charged assisted suicide controversy, perhaps the time has come to change the organizational names. “The Association for the Prevention of Some Suicides” might not be catchy, but at least it would have the virtue of honesty.