Suicide: Is it crazy or not?

This malpractice case left me scratching my head about our attitudes toward suicide: To summarize the case, it appears that the jury blamed the defendant medical providers, on the theory that their negligence made the patient’s life so miserable that he killed himself.

Aside from the fact that we probably never really know what motivates a person to end his own life, and the fact the we do not know all the details of the case, it seems to me that for the jury to come to such a conclusion requires an assumption that suicide makes a certain amount of sense under such circumstances. In other words, they imply that he was not necessarily crazy to choose to die. In fact they might have said, “Of course anyone would kill themselves if they felt that badly.” This seems to fly in the face of the usual view of suicide in our society as irrational. To look at it in reverse, we might argue that the jury should not blame an irrational act on the defendants.

Are you ready for more mental gymnastics? Imagine this case in a state like Oregon or Washington where physicians can, under certain circumstances, legally assist patients in ending their lives. This case would not likely meet the current criteria in those states, but let us imagine relaxation of those criteria to allow this individual to petition for assisted suicide.

Everything looks the same at first. The medical treatment leads to an overwhelming increase in suffering, but instead of having to kill himself in some messy, presumably secret way, the patient can petition for a prescribed lethal overdose, maybe with friends and family present to bid farewell. Of course a psychiatric examination would have ruled the patient competent to choose suicide.

Now what about the medical provider defendants? Will they have a say in the matter? Assume they have maintained some degree of contact with the patient and are aware of his plan to suicide. By this time they probably anticipate a malpractice suit. They will certainly try to predict whether suicide would lead to a larger or smaller monetary damage award. Might they sue to try to stop the suicide, offering their own witness to opine that suicide would indeed be irrational and should not proceed, or would they (secretly of course) hope he kills himself?

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