Wesley Smith's suicide contagion theory busted

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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.


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