The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have both reported on the tragic story
of a British couple in their 80s who died in a suicide pact at their home in Victoria
Australia last Thursday. Don Flounders, 81, suffered
from mesothelioma, which is an incurable form of lung cancer and his 88-year-old
wife Iris, who was not suffering from a terminal illness, decided she did not want
to live without him. The couple made no secret
of their intention to die together and travelled to Mexico in 2008 to buy the drug
they need for a controlled death.
A video from the couple
has been posted on YouTube explaining their intentions. They killed themselves
after receiving advice from Philip Nitschke, a dangerous self-publicist and
extremist who is well known for promoting suicide amongst elderly people.
In a 2001 interview on
‘National Review Online’ Nitschke was asked who
would qualify for access to his ‘suicide pill’. He replied that ‘all people qualify,
not just those with the training, knowledge or resources to find out how to “give
away” their life and someone needs to provide this knowledge training or resource
necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly, bereaved,
the troubled teen’. In the same article Nitschke
said that the so-called peaceful pill should be ‘available in the supermarket so
that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time
of their choosing’.
It is well-established
that the occurrence of one suicide can lead to another suicide. This phenomenon
is the ‘Werther effect’, otherwise termed ‘copy cat’ suicide, ‘suicide contagion
or ‘suicide cluster’. It is also well-established
that how the media reports a suicide can influence whether other suicides will follow. The World Health Organization
has developed guidelines for reporting suicide to minimize other
suicides which state that ‘the degree of publicity given to a suicide story is directly
correlated with the number of subsequent suicides. Cases of suicide involving celebrities have had
a particularly strong impact’. The WHO guidance on the
media coverage of suicide is very clear:
•Don’t report specific details of the method used
•Don’t publish photographs or suicide notes
•Don’t glorify or sensationalize suicide
•Highlight alternatives to suicide
•Provide information on help lines and community resources
•Publicize risk indicators and warning signs
The You Tube video violates
all six of these guidelines.
The BBC editorial guidelines on suicide and assisted suicide
are equally unambiguous:
Suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm should be portrayed with great sensitivity,
whether in drama or in factual programmes. Factual reporting and fictional portrayal
of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm have the potential to make such actions
appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable.
In Oregon, where assisted
suicide was made legal in 1997 general suicide rates (in addition to those who are
dying under the provisions of the Death with Dignity Act) are rising significantly. Oregon’s suicide rate
is 35 percent higher than the national average; 15.2 suicides per 100,000 people
compared to the national rate of 11.3 per 100,000. After decreasing in the
1990s, suicide rates have been increasing significantly since 2000, according to
a new report, ‘Suicides in Oregon: Trends and Risk Factors,’
from Oregon Public Health. The report noted a marked
increase in suicides among middle-aged women. The number of women between 45 and
64 years of age who died from suicide rose 55 percent between 2000 and 2006 — from
8.2 per 100,000 to 12.8 per 100,000 respectively. The highest suicide rate
occurred among men ages 85 and older (78.4 per 100,000). White males had the highest
suicide rate among all races and ethnicities (26.5 per 100,000).
It is hard to imagine
that the legalisation of assisted suicide in Oregon has not at least in part contributed
to this state of affairs.
The danger to elderly
people of publicising joint suicides has been noted before and is well recognised
in the medical literature. A 2003 report which has
just come into the public domain, titled ‘The Werther Effect and Assisted Suicide’, tells
of a large epidemiological study in the region of Basle, Switzerland, from 1992
to 1996, in which a considerable rise in suicides assisted by the right-to-die society
EXIT was uncovered after wide press coverage of an assisted double suicide of a
prominent couple in that region in March 1995. It also notes that women over 65
are particularly vulnerable.
The posting of this YouTube video is in breach of the WHO guidance on the handling of suicide by the media.
It risks promoting other similar suicides and should be removed immediately.
Dr Peter Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship,
a UK-based organisation with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical
students as members. This article has been cross-posted from his blog,Christian Medical Comment