by Richard M. Doerflinger
May 29, 1998
When fellow students had subdued 15-year-old Kipland Kinkel after he shot two dozen people at his high school in Springfield, Oregon, his first words were: "Just shoot me, shoot me now." It turned out he had been treated for depression in the past, and had told classmates that he would like to kill some people "and save one shot for himself." After arresting young Kinkel, state officials instituted a "suicide watch" to make sure he wouldn't take his life while in custody.
A few weeks earlier, an 83-year-old woman in Portland, Oregon also posed a danger to herself. She had breast cancer, and was depressed over no longer being able to engage in her favorite activities. She felt isolated because she could not take walks outside, and she missed being able to tend her garden. She, too, talked to others about wishing for death. So her relatives and a willing physician, with the blessing of the state of Oregon, instituted a suicide watch for her. They gave her lethal drugs, then stood by and watched while she committed suicide.
What's wrong with this picture? Not the careful attention given to a mentally disturbed teenager who committed a terrible crime. Capital punishment would only compound the cycle of violence. For state officials to sit back and deliberately allow this confused teenager to turn his violent tendencies on himself would itself have been criminal negligence. But then, what to say about Oregon's willingness to do just that in the case of an innocent elderly woman?
To be sure, there are differences between the two cases -- but those differences don't help justify the double standard.
While the very young and very old both have higher rates of suicide than other groups, the dynamic can be somewhat different. Psychiatrists tell us that teenage boys tend to externalize their mental disturbances and take them out on others. Depression among teens may show itself through anger and irritability rather than visible sadness. Teenage suicide can have an element of defiance against what the teenager, in the tunnel vision typical of depression, sees as a hostile and uncaring world.
By contrast, elderly women in poor health may become quietly depressed over a long period of time, having internalized feelings of worthlessness and "being a burden" picked up from others. They may develop a wish to die to spare others the trouble of caring for them -- a phenomenon that gerontology expert Nancy Osgood calls "acquiescent suicide." A person in this state does not usually turn to violent or messy means of death -- swallowing pills and drifting off to an endless sleep is part of the pattern of avoiding muss and fuss for others.
But what is the justification for Oregon recognizing one suicidal pattern for what it is -- a sign of mental disturbance -- while reinforcing and facilitating the other?
Some may claim that the difference lies in the opportunity for psychiatric review under Oregon's new law allowing assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The state's first known case of assisted suicide makes a poor argument for such a claim. The woman's own physician refused to assist her suicide; so did a second physician who, after meeting with her, concluded that she needed treatment for depression. Finally a suicide advocacy group located a doctor who agreed to "help" her after a mere phone conversation. So much for careful psychological review.
A final difference that some might point to is that Kip Kinkel is young and (physically) healthy, while the unnamed woman was old and sick. But most of us have a difficult time working out the calculus for the relative "worth" to society of a homicidal teenager and a sick, elderly lady. It is not that one or the other is "worth" more -- it's that such a calculation is morally odious, because it denies each person's inalienable dignity under God.
Like me, the young people of Oregon may be finding it difficult to keep politically correct "assisted suicide" and plain old tragic suicide in separate mental compartments.
In 1994 -- the year that "right to die" forces campaigned to legalize assisted suicide for cases of terminal illness in Oregon -- the state had a record number of suicides, giving it a suicide rate 37% higher than the national average. This increase was driven by a 26% increase in suicides among 15-to-24-year-olds (The Oregonian, 2/7/96). Now, in the wake of the Kinkel tragedy, experts point out that "teen-age Oregonians are far more likely to commit suicide with a gun than to use it in a murder," and that suicide is second only to traffic accidents as a cause of death in this age group. "By 1995," says a news report, "Oregon teens were killing themselves with guns at nearly twice the national rate, worsening the state's longtime suicide problem" (Id., 5/31/98). Nor is the problem confined to firearms. State officials are concerned about a cluster of teenage suicides by hanging at just one institution, the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility; they said in April that eight additional youths at the facility were on suicide watch (Id., 4/11/98). The first hanging occurred on October 19 of last year, at the height of the successful "right to die" campaign to persuade voters to keep Oregon's law allowing assisted suicide.
If Oregon's young people are hearing that death is a solution to human problems, they need to start hearing a different and far more hopeful message soon.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)