The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released new figures on suicides among people diagnosed with severe health conditions. The key finding is that there’s an elevated risk of suicide one year after diagnosis of a severe health condition.
Somewhat predictably, this has been jumped on by proponents of law change in respect to assisted suicide. Campaign group Dignity in Dying tweeted about the stats, claiming they proved the current blanket ban on assisted suicide needed to be changed.
Their argument seems to be that if only assisted suicide were a legal option, the suicide rates among people living with a terminal illness would actually decrease.
But I would argue the statistics actually show the very opposite. Far from pointing towards the need for a dangerous change in the law, they should be seen as prompt to improve universal access to specialist end of life care and palliative care services.
Multiple studies have demonstrated a link between getting a terminal diagnosis and treatable clinical depression. A major review of academic literature from the American Psychiatric Association found 8 in 10 patients suffer from treatable depression, especially in the first year after diagnosis.
The idea that we should therefore make assisting someone to kill themselves legal as a response is surely deeply chilling. It’s one of the great concerns about changing the law, namely that legalising assisted suicide will create pressure on some of the most vulnerable.
In Oregon, for example, six in ten of those ending their life with a terminal illness in 2019 cited fear of being a burden on their families, friends and caregivers as a reason for seeking death.
Disturbingly, there’s also evidence that changing the law to permit assisted suicide also normalizes suicide in general. Again, in Orgeon, experts concluded that legalising assisted suicide there was associated with an increase of 6.3 per cent in the number of suicides.
You see the same in Europe where suicide rates have not decreased after the legslisation of assisted suicide. In The Netherlands, non-assisted suicides have increased compared with Germany. Belgium now has the highest non-assisted suicide rate in women in Europe. Further afield, in Canada, non-assisted suicide rates increased between 2016-2019.
The point here is that these ONS figures are actually a reminder that we need to do more to make sure high quality palliative care is extended to all who need it. That’s where the focus should be.
This is a genuinely compassionate response to suffering and a terminal illness. When we look after people and give them both physical and also psychological and emotional support, you affirm their God-given dignity. Assisted suicide does the very opposite. It looks compassionate. But assisting someone to kill themselves means you accept the idea that life can lose its meaning.
Such a view is incompatible with orthodox Christianity where a person’s life never runs out of meaning because we are made in the image of the Creator.