Rhetoric: Suicide 'contagion'

0
Professor Margaret Somerville makes an indefensible 'suicide contagion' claim.

Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville claims that every assisted suicide jurisdiction shows 'contagion' to the general suicide rate. The empirical evidence contradicts her claim.

Get the full report here.

Professor Margaret Somerville, currently Professor of Ethics in the School of Medicine at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia,[1] has enjoyed ongoing publication of her opinions, with few challenges published to date.

Back in 2007, Somerville, then a Professor of Ethics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, appeared as an expert witness in an Iowa District Court case. The court comprehensively rejected her testimony, determining that she:

“…specifically eschews empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition.’ She has no training in empirical research…”

Professor Somerville, I argue, has again fallen short on empirical research and logical reasoning. To illustrate, I will analyse her claim, published in an opinion piece in ABC Religion and Ethics that:

“…the general suicide rate has increased in every jurisdiction that has legalized assisted suicide.

While her claim may be her own personal opinion, she has presented it expressly stating that she is a Professor of Ethics at her current university of employment, lending the claim perceived authority.

This report demonstrates how her claim and her defence of it are contradicted by multiple sources of empirical government and other primary research evidence. It also demonstrates that she failed to engage appropriate scholarly standards that require the active search for, acquisition and analysis of all reasonably available relevant data in an attempt to answer a particular question.

In making her claim, Prof. Somerville:

  • Cites ‘supportive’ data from lawful jurisdictions while overlooking other data, sometimes even in the same data set, that are inconsistent with her claim;
  • Cites as supporting evidence an econometric modelling study that did not find a statistically-significant relationship between assisted dying law and the general (non-assisted) suicide rate;
  • Fails to consider data from all jurisdictions with assisted suicide laws while making a claim about them all — overlooking Switzerland, whose empirical data is clearly at odds with her claim;
  • Repeatedly cites non-academic anti-euthanasia lobbyist Mr Alex Schadenberg (who also cites her) as a source of evidence for her claim and who in turn quotes a television source and another lobbyist’s opinion to underpin his own beliefs about ‘suicide contagion’; and
  • Conflates voluntary euthanasia (physician-administration) with assisted suicide (patient self-administration) such that her argument, at least in the context of Belgium and the Netherlands, is substantially about the novel concept of ‘euthanasia contagion’ rather than the more familiar ‘suicide contagion’ expression she uses.
     

These findings are consistent with the Iowa court’s ruling that Prof. Somerville sometimes relies on ‘moral intuition’ rather than sound empirical research and logical reasoning.

My report also draws a number of connections between those advancing misinformation on assisted dying ‘suicide contagion,’ and Catholic identity. Catholic identity is not a reason to reject arguments, but it does help identify the source of a majority of ‘suicide contagion’ misinformation.

Finally, I argue that the appropriate course of action for Prof. Somerville is to retract her ‘suicide contagion in every jurisdiction’ claim.

 

Get the full report here.


[1]   Not to be confused with another Professor Margaret Somerville, who is Director of the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University.

Share This Post:
0
Brad Mattes' blog containing misleading and evidentially false statements.

The latest misinformation employed by assisted dying opponents is to imply that Belgium’s general suicide rate is high as a consequence of its assisted dying law: i.e. to argue the discredited 'suicide contagion' line which has in the past been peddled about the USA state of Oregon. I have demonstrated that it was false in Oregon, and I equally demonstrate here that it's false in Belgium.

Mr Brad Mattes recently published emotional anti-assisted-dying nonsense in LifeSiteNews. (LifeSiteNews is a Canadian blog site that was established by the conservative Christian Campaign for Life Coalition and which has a primary principle of promoting “traditional Judeo-Christian principles”. Mr Mattes is radio host for Ohio’s Life Issues Institute, an anti-abortion lobby group established by conservative American John C. Willke who claimed that women’s bodies were resistant to pregnancy as a result of rape.)

Putting on the misinformation running shoes

In his blog Mr Mattes quickly establishes a practice of communicating misinformation by first claiming that assisted dying laws have “devastating effects” around the world including Japan and Albania—which don’t have such laws.

He then sprints onwards to the ‘650 babies euthanized in the Netherlands’ claim—which I have already comprehensively exposed as fake in the Journal of Assisted Dying—and then onto the bogus claim that the Netherlands has descended into a mire of ‘killing’ without the patient’s ‘consent,’ contrary to empirical evidence I've published that such actions occur around the world regardless of assisted dying laws, and which have decreased significantly in the Netherlands and Belgium since their assisted dying statutes came into effect in 2002.

Let’s add fries to that

Having served up a lot of fat and salt that might appeal to those on a fast-food anti-assisted-dying diet, he then offers the unqualified statement:

By the way, Belgium has the second-highest suicide rate (nonrelated to euthanasia) in Western Europe.” — Brad Mattes

The ‘informational’ consequence is unequivocal: by Mr Mattes failing to contextualise this ‘incidental factoid’ in any way, the reader is destined to deduce that it is Belgium’s euthanasia law that causes Belgium’s suicide rate to be the second-highest in Western Europe. In other words, Mr Mattes is another poorly-informed commentator using the 'suicide contagion' line.

But what are the facts?

Depending on the source and year of data, one can certainly argue that Belgium’s general suicide rate is the second-highest in Western Europe. Setting aside for now the serious question of why it is valid to exclude all of the world’s other countries from the comparison, WorldLifeExpectancy.com reports figures that were published in 2014 (Table 1).

Table 1

Country

Suicides*

Finland

15.11

Belgium

14.64

Iceland

14.06

France

12.84

Austria

11.87

Sweden

11.43

Ireland

11.06

Germany

9.59

Switzerland

9.56

Norway

9.28

Denmark

9.19

Luxembourg

9.14

Netherlands

8.54

Portugal

8.49

Turkey

7.92

UK

6.28

Malta

5.75

Spain

5.23

Italy

4.76

Greece

3.86

* Suicides per 100k population, age-adjusted

The table includes all the countries in the wider definition of “Western Europe”, bar four: no suicide statistics are published for Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra or San Marino.

As you can see, Belgium is indeed the second-highest. But this begs the question:

If the reason Belgium is the second-highest is due to its assisted dying law, how come Finland, which Mr Mattes doesn't mention by name and which has no such law, is higher?

It also begs the question:

If assisted dying law were the fundamental cause of a high general suicide rate, how come Switzerland (statute since 1942), Luxembourg (statute since 2009) and the Netherlands (practice since the early 1980s and statute since 2002) have rates that are much lower, all key facts that Mr Mattes also fails to mention?

These are of course indications that the factoid has been included as a cherry-picked morsel of 'proof' because it sounds so compelling as a throw-away sentence amongst the other (false) statements.

But wait, there’s more

We can go further than merely wondering about the country comparisons, by comparing Belgium’s general suicide rate before and after assisted dying law reform. A critical step in establishing causation is to first establish correlation. If there is no correlation, there can be no causation.

Published OECD data shows that in 2013 (the most recent available data), Belgium’s general suicide rate was 16.7 per 100,000 population. What was it before their 2002 law reform? Well in 2000 it was 20.5, in 1990 it was 19.2, … you get the idea.

Has Belgium’s general suicide rate soared (or even increased modestly) since their 2002 assisted dying law came into effect? No. It’s dropped. Indeed, the slight downward trend apparent before the statute came into effect in 2002 has accelerated downward since (Figure 1).

Belgium's suicide rate since 1987Figure 1: The Belgium general suicide rate before and after assisted dying law reform

Even the headline is misleading

Mr Mattes fails to point out in his blog that assisted dying statutes in Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) never restricted access to only the 'terminally ill,' that is, those imminently dying. He also fails to point out that USA states whose laws do restrict assisted dying to the terminally ill—most notably Oregon and Washington—have not changed their statutes in this regard since they came into effect.

Therefore, his headling implying that lawful jurisdictions have broadened their laws from 'only the terminally ill' is also wrong.

Conclusion

Mr Mattes makes multiple false and misleading claims and it’s easy to see his opinion for what it is: an emotional dump that fails to engage with and indeed flies in the face of actual evidence. The latest 'suicide contagion' implication, that assisted dying law causes Belgium’s general suicide rate to be the “second-highest in Western Europe” is evidentially false.

I call on LifeSiteNews to withdraw Mr Mattes' article because it breaches their primary principle:

“1. Accuracy in content is given high priority. News and information tips from readers are encouraged and validated. Valid corrections are always welcome. Writing and research is of a professional calibre.” — LifeSiteNews

 

Summary of facts

Belgium's general suicide rate is one of the higher ones in Western Europe. However:

  1. At least one country without an assisted dying law has a higher suicide rate, inconsistent with 'suicide contagion' theory.
  2. Other Western Europe countries with assisted dying laws have suicide rates much lower than Belgium's, also at odds with 'suicide contagion' theory.
  3. But the clincher is that the suicide rate in Belgium has dropped, not risen, since their 2002 assisted dying law came into effect.

Share This Post:
0

Wesley Smith never seems to tire of spreading opinion. In another piece of published nonsense, he's proposed that USA's rise in national suicide rate is in significant part a consequence of assisted dying law in those few states that permit it (up until the most recent general suicide data that's Oregon, Washington state, Vermont and Montana). His claim flies in the face of actual evidence.

Wesley Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Remember that? It's the organisation that a USA Federal court ruled pursues "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions," and which comprehensively lost a test case in which it tried to have 'intelligent design' (that's creationism with lipstick) taught as a 'scientific' alternative to evolution.

In a piece recently published by conservative blog NationalReview and reprinted in pro-life LifeSiteNews, Mr Smith has asserted that assisted suicide has a significant part to play in the rising USA national suicide rate. "Color me decidedly not surprised. We are becoming a pro-suicide culture," he asserts.

"I am convinced that the correlation [between assisted suicide advocacy and the general suicide rate] could also be at least a partial causation."

On the matter of rhetoric, notice how Mr Smith cleverly mixes certainty ('convinced') with uncertainty ('could') in order to hedge his literal argumentative bets while giving the impression of valid authority. Ultimately, however, being certain about uncertainty can only be... uncertain.

Mr Smith argues from a USA Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the national suicide rate increased more after 2006, "the very time when the assisted suicide movement has become the most vigorous and made its most dramatic advances [emphasis is Smith's]." He offers not one shred of quantitative empirical evidence to support his contention that the assisted dying movement's 'vigor' changed suddenly and substantially from 2006.

So, what does analysis of relevant and readily-available data show? I've reproduced the USA national general suicide rates obtained from the USA government's CDC online database, plus unemployment rates obtained from the USA government Bureau of Labor Statistics online database in Figure 1. (The suicide data does not include deaths under state Death With Dignity Acts because under these Acts such deaths are not suicides.)
 

USA national suicide and unemployment rates

Figure 1: USA national suicide and unemployment rates

 

The national annual suicide rates are shown in red, and the unemployment rates are shown in blue with linear regression lines for before and after 2006. It's easy to see that prior to 2006 the unemployment rate peaked at around 6%, while after 2006—and clearly in response to the global financial crisis (GFC)—the rate peaks much higher at nearly 10%.

Suicide is indeed a complex phenomenon, with a wide range of both risk factors (e.g. unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse) and protective factors (e.g. mental illness mitigation programs, unemployment benefits), and it would be glib to assert only one or a few factors. Nevertheless, Figure 1 demonstrates a clear correlation between trends in unemployment and the overall suicide rate.

Correlation is of course not causation: though I will in a future report show how extensively common this correlation is around the world and over time. Nevertheless, the data, had Mr Smith bothered looking for it, offers a vastly more rational and compelling explanation of the rise in suicide rate than does some hokey theory about how just 325 rational adults in two states (Oregon and Washington state Death With Dignity Act deaths in 2014) who were already dying and quietly and privately chose to go a little early in response to intolerable suffering, caused the suicide rate amongst 319 million inhabitants (2014) across a nation of fifty states, to rise by a "huge and alarming" amount.

Mr Smith backhandedly acknowledges that there are multiple causes of suicide. "There is no question that assisted suicide advocacy is not the only factor causing this alarming increase in suicides," he says, presumptively positioning his hypothetical reason as definitely one of them.

Mr Smith does refer to a recent journal article by David Jones and David Paton that purports to show a weak link between assisted dying and the total suicide rate (with the weak link appearing only if assisted deaths are counted as suicides). I have analysed that paper in detail and shall deal with it in due course. How it passed peer review (if it was indeed peer reviewed) remains a mystery. The study is of an unacceptably poor standard on a range of facets as I will demonstrate.

In conclusion, did the CDC report that Mr Smith cites suggest that 'assisted suicide contagion' was a possible cause of the increase? Nope.

It's really time that Mr Smith and colleagues gave the misinformation campaign a rest.


Share This Post:
0
Dr William Toffler (left) acknowledges no slippery slope cause-and-effect evidence, with Drs Bentz and Stevens

A new scholarly journal focused on end-of-life ethics, decision-making and practice has just been launched: the Journal of Assisted Dying. In the first article, claims by Oregon lobby group Physicians for Compassionate Care (PCC), including Doctors Bill (William) Toffler and Ken Stevens (and others) are assessed against empirical evidence and found to be completely wrong, or highly misleading as a result of selective use of data.

The new scholarly journal, the Journal of Assisted Dying, is dedicated to careful and holistic analysis of evidence in regard to the various forms of assisted dying that are lawful in a number of jurisdictions around the world... and to practices in jurisdictions where assisted dying remains illegal.

In the first article of a series on Oregon, I examine claims and speculations made by various doctors (and others who quote them), that Oregon has the second-highest suicide rate in the USA (or is always in the top 10), that Oregon's Death With Dignity Act has resulted a massive increase in the state's general suicide rate, and other astonishing statements.

Of course, the empirical evidence from the Oregon Health Authority and from the USA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not support these statements and interpretations, and I analyse and critique the evidence.

Some of the claims are just plain factually and hugely wrong. Others are the result of failing to read their sources more carefully, misunderstanding what the data actually represents. Still further claims are made on the basis of selectively-chosen statements from government reports, while omitting statements that are contrary to, or provide alternative and well-researched explanations for Oregon's recently rising general suicide rate.

Drs Toffler and Stevens have even published some of their claims and speculations in the British Medical Journal.1 It goes to show that even good journals sometimes publish bunkum:  their article was a letter to the editor rather than peer-reviewed research. Great care is required to sort real evidence from hype and opinion.

Ultimately, Dr Bill Toffler of PCC has acknowledged on video that there is no cause-and-effect evidence between Oregon's Death With Dignity Act and Oregon's suicide rate, an acknowledgement that went unchallenged by his two PCC colleagues present at the time, Dr Ken Stevens and Dr Chuck (Charles) Bentz. You can see Dr Toffler's statement here (at 10'50").

The Journal of Assisted Dying is an open-access journal, and you can read the full article here.

-----

1. Toffler, WL & Stevens, K 2015, 'Re: Assisted dying: law and practice around the world', BMJ, vol. 351, 19 Aug, p. h4481.


Share This Post:

Physician use of misinformation to speculate 'assisted dying suicide contagion' in Oregon


Author(s)

Neil Francis

Journal

Journal of Assisted Dying, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1–6.

Abstract

Background: Several physicians have speculated that Oregon’s general suicide rate is evidence of suicide contagion as a result of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (‘the Act’).
Methods: Search and analysis of physician and related online sources of Oregon suicide contagion speculation; retrieval and analysis of cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other publications relied upon; analysis of authoritative, public Government mortality data for Oregon and other USA states.
Results: Several physicians have speculated about Oregon suicide statistics in a manner that is not supported by the cited publications, or by public CDC mortality database data. The claims variously (a) misrepresent key data in the publications, (b) omit information in the publications that is at variance with suicide contagion speculation, and (c) overlook other significant information at variance with speculation. The physicians have previously acknowledged inability to prove perceived “slippery slope” effects of the Act. Other opponents of the Act have republished the physicians’ erroneous information.
Conclusions: Evidence advanced by several physicians to speculate that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act causes suicide contagion in Oregon is variously false, misleading or highly selective—omitting key facts—and has arisen even though the physicians acknowledge they have no proof of ‘slippery slope’ effects.

Article keywords

suicide contagion, copycat suicide, Werther effect, slippery slope, misinformation, Oregon, Dr William Toffler, Dr Kenneth Stevens, Physicians for Compassionate Care

Full PDF

Download the full PDF: Download the full article (390Kb)

Citation

Francis, N 2016, 'Physician use of misinformation to speculate 'assisted dying suicide contagion' in Oregon', Journal of Assisted Dying, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-6.

Download the citation in RIS format: RIS.gif


Share This Post:
0
St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Donaldytong

On Wednesday 19th November 2015, the Catholic Church appeared before the Victorian Parliament's Legal and Social Issues Committee. Monsignor Anthony Ireland, the Episcopal Vicar for Health, Aged and Disability Care, and Father Anthony Kerin, Episcopal Vicar for Life, Marriage and Family gave evidence about end-of-life decision making. They made a factually wrong allegation about Oregon during their testimony.

Anthony Ireland spoke first, making it clear that they were appearing before the Committee with delegated authority from the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne (Denis Hart) and with the endorsement of the Victorian Catholic Bishops. He emphasised that "the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne does not come to this Committee with fanciful or frivolous arguments."

During question time. Committee Chair Edward O'Donohue asked the Vicars if they had any evidence from lawful jurisdictions to back up their claim that legalising assisted dying would result in a significant reduction in medical research. The Vicars flailed about with vague hypotheticals, but no evidence.

Committee Deputy Chair Nina Springle remarked that some of their testimony was inconsistent with direct evidence from lawful jurisdictions and invited them to reflect on the contradictions. To this, Anthony Kerin stated:

"We know, for example, since Oregon legislated, that the standard suicide rate has increased remarkably and alarmingly. It's not yet the largest rate in the US, but it's getting there, when Oregon had a very, very low suicide rate prior to that."

Let's not mince words: the allegation is comprehensively false. In fact it's three false statements all wrapped up into one.

The USA government's CDC mortaility database provides solid empirical data. Here's Oregon's longitudinal suicide rate statistics, including sixteen years before its Death With Dignity Act (DWDA), and sixteen years after.

Oregon suicide rate

Here are the pertinent facts about Oregon's general suicide rate:

  1. The average for the 16 years after the DWDA is lower than, but not statistically different from, the 16 years prior to the Act.
  2. There was a massive drop in the suicide rate two years after the DWDA came into effect, and the rate has risen only from there.
  3. The rise from 2000 onwards is repeated in the majority of USA states and in the national average. The trend increase in Oregon is not statistically different from the national trend increase.

 
By way of comparison, here's Vermont's suicide rate for the same period.

vermontsuiciderate.jpg

Now, Vermont didn't have an assisted dying law until 2013, and no assisted deaths occurred under the law in that year, so the suicide rate cannot have been affected by an assisted dying law. Yet the picture is similar to Oregon's.

Here's the USA national suicide rate for the same period, with the unemployment rate added.

USA suicide and unemployment rates

There are numerous and complex reasons for suicide and for changes in the rate, but a key one in this USA case is unemployment, which after falling in the 1990s rose abruptly from 2000 onwards.

Has Oregon's suicide rate been worsening relative to other USA states, though? The state annual suicide rankings are informative.

Oregon suicide ranking among all USA states (number 1 is worst)

Prior to the DWDA, the trend in Oregon's suicide ranking among all USA states was deteriorating (where ranking number one is the highest suicide rate). Since the Act came into effect, the trend is improving. The difference in trends is statistically significant. In the sixteen years since the Act came into effect, Oregon has appeared in the "top ten" six times, compared with twelve times in the 16 years prior to the Act.

So, let's examine the three elements of the Catholic Church's statement:

1. "Since Oregon legislated, the standard suicide rate has increased remarkably and alarmingly"

This statement is false by omission. It is critically relevant to mention that Oregon's suicide rate dropped massively two years after the DWDA came into effect. Only after 2000 did it begin to rise—like most states and nationally—and in response to a rising unemployment rate.

2. "Oregon had a very, very low suicide rate prior to that [the DWDA]"

This statement is completely false. Oregon's mean rate suicide for 16 years after the act is not significantly different from the mean for 16 years prior to the Act. Indeed, government data back to 1968 shows Oregon's general suicide rate has always been high and never "low", let alone "very, very low".

3. It's not yet the largest rate in the US, but it's getting there"

This statement is completely false. Oregon's suicide ranking amongst USA states was worsening prior to the DWDA, but has been improving since.

It's very disappointing indeed that the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne would offer such profoundly false testimony to a legislative committee making inquiries on behalf of the people of Victoria. The offense is all the more grevious because of the unequivocal manner in which the statement was made, and that the witnesses specifically stated they did not bring any fanciful or frivolous arguments to the Committee.

It's time to comprehensively stamp out false information about assisted dying, no matter how fervently it might be believed by its proponents. Watch this space: there's plenty more to come!


Share This Post:
0

 

Opponents of assisted dying law reform often invoke fictional slippery slopes as objections to law reform. In this video, Neil Francis gives three examples of supposed slippery slopes argued by opponents, explains why they are fictional, and shares the perspectives of several recognised experts from the USA state of Oregon about their Death With Dignity law which has been in effect since 1997. Three long-time Oregonian Death With Dignity Act opponents also admit there's no cause-and-effect relationship established between law reform and supposed slippery slopes.

This is the second of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

Visit the YouTube page.

Share This Post:
Subscribe to RSS - Rhetoric: Suicide 'contagion'