Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Montana: Say "No" to the Oregon Experience

By Margaret K. Dore, Esq.
To view pdf version with footnotes, click here.

Since the passage of Oregon’s law allowing physician-assisted suicide, other suicides in Oregon have steadily increased. This is consistent with a suicide contagion in which the legalization of physician-assisted suicides has encouraged other suicides. In Oregon, the financial and emotional impacts of suicide on family members and the broader community are devastating and long-lasting.

A.  Suicide is Contagious 

It is well known that suicide is contagious. A famous example is Marilyn Monroe. Her widely reported suicide was followed by “a spate of suicides.”

With the understanding that suicide is contagious, groups such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the World Health Organization have developed guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide, to prevent contagion.  Key points include that the risk of additional suicides increases:
[W]hen the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death. 
B. Physician-Assisted Suicide in Oregon

In Oregon, prominent cases of physician-assisted suicide include Lovelle Svart and Brittany Maynard.

Lovelle Svart died in 2007. The Oregonian, which is Oregon’s largest paper, violated the recommended guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide by explicitly describing her suicide method and by employing “dramatic/graphic images.” Indeed, visitors to the paper’s website were invited “to hear and see when Lovelle swallowed the fatal dose.” There are still photos of her online, lying in bed, dying.

Brittany Maynard reportedly died from physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, on November 1, 2014. Contrary to the recommended guidelines, there was “repeated/extensive coverage” in multiple media, worldwide. This coverage is ongoing, especially in Colorado, where her image is now being used to promote a pending ballot initiative (Prop. 106).

C. The Young Man Wanted to Die Like Brittany Maynard

A month after Ms. Maynard’s death, Dr. Will Johnston was presented with a twenty year old patient during an emergency appointment. The young man, who had been brought in by his mother, was physically healthy, but had been acting oddly and talking about death.

Dr. Johnston asked the young man if he had a plan. The young man said "yes," that he had watched a video about Ms. Maynard. He said that he was very impressed with her and that he identified with her and that he thought it was a good idea for him to die like her. He also told Dr. Johnston that after watching the video he had been surfing the internet looking for  suicide drugs. Dr. Johnston’s declaration states:
He was actively suicidal and agreed to go to the hospital, where he stayed for five weeks until it was determined that he was sufficiently safe from self-harm to go home.
The young man had wanted to die like Brittany Maynard.

D. In Oregon, Other Suicides Have Increased with Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide


Oregon government reports show the following positive  correlation between the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and an increase in other suicides.  Per the reports:
  • Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide “in late 1997.”
  • By 2000, Oregon’s conventional suicide rate was "increasing significantly."
  • By 2007, Oregon's conventional suicide rate was 35% above the national average.
  • By 2010, Oregon's conventional suicide rate was 41% above the national average.
  • By 2012, Oregon's conventional suicide rate was 42% above the national average.
E. The Financial and Emotional Cost of Suicide in Oregon 

Oregon’s most recent report, for 2012, describes the cost of suicide as “enormous.” The report states:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oregonians aged 15 to 34 year, and the eighth leading cause of death among all ages in Oregon.  The cost of suicide is enormous. In 201[2] alone, self-inflicted injury hospitalization charges in Oregon exceeded $54 million; and the estimate of total lifetime cost of suicide in Oregon was over $677 million. The loss to families and communities broadens the impact of each death.

F. The Significance for Montana

In Montana, the law on assisted suicide is governed by the Montana Supreme Court decision, Baxter v. State, 354 Mont. 234 (2009). Baxter gives doctors who assist a suicide a potential defense to criminal prosecution. Baxter does not legalize assisted suicide by giving doctors or anyone else immunity from criminal liability. Under Baxter, a doctor cannot be assured that a suicide will qualify for the defense. 

Some assisted suicide proponents nonetheless claim that Baxter has legalized assisted suicide in Montana. More importantly, some doctors claim to have assisted suicides.

Montana already has a higher suicide rate than Oregon. If Baxter is not overturned and/or the law clarified that assisted suicide is not legal, the suicide problem in Montana will only get worse. Montana does not need the Oregon experience.