The media campaign for euthanasia appears to be well under way at the moment. While various broadcasters and columnists have been issuing a call for a debate on this issue, it’s very difficult to see what we are being presented with as anything other than a push for euthansia. It is displayed almost too neatly to us. Surely this should have alarm bells ringing.
We only have to look at high profile cases to see the language used, and at how Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) and euthanasia are idealised. Phrases like “aid with dying” or “death with dignity” or “die on one’s own terms”. These are the phrases that campaigners and mainstream media are using when they are calling for a debate. Language that clearly endorses euthanasia and PAS.
Euthanasia and PAS, at the end of the day, involves the ending of a life, no matter what language is in use. It is an emotive and sensitive issue: everyone can agree on this much. That should require the language and debate to be careful and cautious as lives literally depend on it.
On the HSE website you can find revised media guidelines (2017) issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and first published in 1999, and entitled ‘Preventing Suicides a Resource for Media Professionals’. These guidelines or something similar, would serve well when reporting on euthanasia or PAS in order to protect the vulnerable in society as is it’s purpose for reporting on suicide.
There is no escaping the fact that when euthanasia is introduced into law it can encourage and even pressurise vulnerable people to end their lives. New evidence suggests there may be a possible link between the introduction of PAS or euthanasia laws and an increase in suicide rates in general.
In some countries where euthansia or PAS has been established the numbers of those dying by suicide outside of the clinical setting has also risen. This cannot be dismissed as a simple coincidence.
In Oregon for example, PAS has been legal since 1997. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. reports that Oregon’s suicide rate increased 49% between 1999 and 2010 (compared to 28% nationally). Oregon’s Health Department says that the state’s suicide rate has been rising since 2000 and that as of 2012 the rate was 41% higher than the national average. These figures are in addition to cases of PAS as Oregon law does not permit those deaths to be counted as suicide.
In Belgium, the suicide rate also ranks amongst the 5 highest in Europe at 20.7 per 100k in 2016. Belgium notably has one of the most liberal euthanasia laws, by 2015 the country had surpassed 2000 cases per year.
We’ve heard of the tragic phenomenon of suicide contagion, could we also reasonably conclude that the same holds true of an assisted suicide contagion?
Euthanasia campaigners will say they are calling for safeguards to be in place but it would be important to take a searching and honest look at other countries to see if those safeguards have been effective. As has been the case elsewhere, great assurances that have been given regarding the restrictions on euthanasia are often discarded and the law expanded to include cases that would perhaps have been unacceptable initially.
Once euthanasia becomes admissible instead of being a last resort in these very specific cases, it can move more rapidly to being the first option. This is part of the legacy of euthanasia movement. One that is largely ignored by the media despite all the calls for a debate.
Margaret Byrne writes from Wicklow