PAS and the Werther Effect: How one suicide leads to others

Legalized PAS and the Werther Effect

Evidence suggests that legalized PAS will result in a greater number of suicides more generally (and not simply amongst the population who opt for legalized PAS). We will have great difficulty, on the one hand, giving our and medicine’s approval to suicide as the solution to complex problems at the end of life while, on the other, getting the message across to youth and despairing others, that suicide does not solve the messy problems our lives pose to us. Well-regarded studies indicate that suicides lead to suicides. The phenomena has been repeatedly confirmed: awareness of the suicide of one person leads to suicides of similarly situated people. The greater the awareness, the larger the number of suicides of similarly situated people. In a 1974 article published in The American Sociological Review, Professor David Phillips named this The Werther Effect, after the suicidal hero of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe himself wrote that, “My friends … thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public …” (As quoted in Phillips, The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect, American Sociological Review, 39:3 (Jun.1974) 340-54, p. 340.) Anecdotes indicate that many imitated the fictional Werther, yet, no one confirmed Goethe’s claim. In his work, Phillips shows that after publicized suicides, suicides increase amongst the populations aware of the suicide. Moreover, those who commit suicide share important similarities to the originating suicide. So, typically, when an older man’s suicide receives notice, older men commit suicide. Phillips’ work indicates that upon becoming aware of the suicides of similar others, certain people will resort to suicide, by, for example, killing themselves in single-car accidents. An allied phenomena documented by Phillips is the propensity of some, upon learning of murder-suicides, to commit murder-suicide by car and by plane. (See, e.g., The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect, American Sociological Review, 39:3 (Jun.1974) 340-54. Motor Vehicle Fatalities Increase Just after Publicized Suicide Stories, Science, 196:4297 (Jun 24, 1977) 1464-65. Motor Vehicle Fatalities and the Mass Media: Evidence Toward a Theory of Suggestion, The American Journal of Sociology, 84:5 ((Mar., 1979) 1150-74. Airplane Accident Fatalities Increase Just After Newspaper Stories About Murder and Suicide, Science, 201:4357 (Aug. 25, 19978) 748-50; Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media: Towards a Theory of Imitation and Suggestion, Social Forces, 58:4, (June 1980), 1001-24.) Why would this be so? There are numerous explanations. Phillips himself proposes a theory of suggestion by which others come to view suicide as one of the available repertoire of responses to their situation. One overarching way of putting this is that our respect for life, including our own lives is something we share in common with one another. Those who regard their lives and the lives of others as disposable affect how others think about the value of human life, both theirs (in the case of suicide) and that of others (in the case of murder-suicide). A society that expands the typically highly constrained circumstances in which human life may be taken thereby undermines respect for life. Simply put, undermining respect for life leads to more deaths. More precisely, legalizing PAS will probably lead to more suicides, and not simply to more physician-assisted suicides. That is, with the legalization of PAS and the publication of deaths that occur by PAS, we ought to find an increase in suicide by single-car accidents, by walking in front of cars, and by various other means that one would not initially consider suicides. These suicides will not be of people who have been screened for depression, and so on, as the guidelines for PAS require. Rather, they will be of those who see others and society proposing suicide as a solution to some of life’s problems from which they suffer.

Thomas Cavanaugh

Thomas A. Cavanaugh is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, where he has taught since 1994. His scholarship includes Double-effect Reasoning: Doing Good and Avoiding Evil (Clarendon: Oxford, 2006) as well as articles in medical, ethical and philosophical journals such as: Bioethics, Science and Engineering Ethics, Christian Bioethics, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Journal of General Internal Medicine, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The Thomist, Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, and Aquinas Review. He regularly teaches medical ethics at USF. He lectures nationally and internationally on Bio-ethics, ethics, and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at institutions such as: Stanford, La Sapienza, Berkeley, The University of Buenos Aires, Marquette, Baylor, Brigham Young, The New University of Lisbon, and Nihon University of Tokyo. He has previously chaired USF’s Philosophy Department; currently, he serves as its Ethics Coordinator. Amongst other honors, he has been awarded and held: the Bradley Fellowship, the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair, the Mortimer Fleishhacker Chair, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Humanities Research Fellowship. He received the doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, writing under Ralph McInerny. He received the A.B. from Thomas Aquinas College.