Suicide Prevention and Other Kinds of Killing
by Rachel MacNair
It’s well-documented that combat veterans have a shockingly high suicide rate. Much of this comes from being traumatized by war. There are many kinds of trauma. The one I study most is Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress, which comes from the act of killing itself.
For my dissertation back in 1999, I got the US government’s data set of 1,638 combat veterans from its war in Vietnam, called The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. One question was: “Did you kill or think you killed anyone in Vietnam?” I made two groups – those who answered “yes” and those who answered “no.”
For trauma as a whole and for every symptom but one, those who said yes had much higher trauma scores than those who said no. This is even when taking intensity of battle into account. Results can be seen in Chapter 1 plus the appendix of my book, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing.
The symptom that was the one exception was suicidal thoughts. I puzzled over this until I had a chilling thought: being “more severe” in suicidal thoughts could mean having actually committed suicide. Those whose symptoms were most severe may not have lived to be included in the data set.
Studies based on thousands of records comparing medical records and death certificates show considerably higher suicide rates among post-abortive women in Finland, Great Britain, and California. A New Zealand study showed increased suicidal behaviors.
Abortion defenders point out that when we’ve selected women who’ve had abortions, we’ve also selected a group more likely to have problems, such as being victims of intimate partner violence.
Still, there are reports of attempted or completed suicides on the anniversary date of the abortion or expected due date, which suggests that abortion may in fact be a major contributor. There are also individual women’s own stories that suggest an abortion-suicide connection.
What about children whose mothers intended to abort them but were unable to? One justification offered for abortion is that it’s so very hard to be an “unwanted child.”
A 1988 book called Born Unwanted: Development Effects of Denied Abortion tries to make this case. They report on studies in Sweden, Finland, and Czechoslovakia, coming from the days when women had to apply to committees for abortions. If they were turned down, they appealed. If turned down again, they had the baby. Follow-up studies were done matching these children with children of similar demographics.
The authors report, with a straight face: “the UP [unplanned pregnancy] subjects are not so much overrepresented on the extremely negative indicators as they are underrepresented on the positive ones” (page 124). That is, they’re underrepresented among the above average. They were excessively average.
The authors argued this grave disadvantage means abortions shouldn’t be denied. This led Frederica Mathewes-Green, editor of Sisterlife, then the newsletter of Feminists for Life, to report on the book using this headline: Prof Repulsed by Working Class; Recommends Elimination. Not Clear Who Will Repair His Mercedes.
Many mothers changed their minds, as over a third – 36% – denied they had made the abortion request, and 73% were satisfied with how the situation was resolved (page 48).
As for suicide? The children don’t seem to agree with the proposal they’re better off dead. Only one suicide was found, a very small proportion given the size of the group (page 43). There’s no reason to think that failure to kill the children earlier means they’ll just kill themselves later on.
One study found states with parental involvement laws (notification or consent) were associated with an 11% to 21% reduction in suicides among females 15-17 years old. Yet they found no difference for males in that age group or older females.
Another study looked at what impact waiting periods had on mental health. Did such periods serve as a protective cooling-off period? Or were they instead a source of additional stress? It used suicide rates of women in different states as a way to measure mental health. The analyses found the states with waiting periods associated with about a 10% reduction in suicide rates.
While it may be that notifying parents or being informed and waiting may lead post-abortive women to be less likely to commit suicide, another explanation is that these methods lowered the abortion rate, and that in turn lowered the suicide rate.
Are unauthorized suicides connected to “authorized” suicides? Once you tell the 16-year-old girl that her grandmother is justified in committing suicide because life with a severe disease or disability is so difficult to bear, how do you tell her that the fact that her boyfriend left her doesn’t make her life too difficult to bear? With talk of bringing on death as a form of autonomy, and individuals deciding for themselves what is and isn’t a worthy life, where does the reasoning end?
We’re also disproportionately putting certain people – especially those with disabilities – into a category of people who don’t get the suicide-prevention services normally offered to everyone else.
The alternative idea by euthanasia proponents is that offering assistance is supposed to reduce suicides, because people don’t feel the need to do it quickly while they still can, before they get too sick.
A major study done on this, comparing US states, found that when assisted suicides were legalized, all suicides went up. The “non-assisted” suicides stayed about the same once researchers statistically controlled for several things. So the pro-euthanasia idea that allowing euthanasia lowers suicide rates isn’t backed up by the evidence so far (as always, more studies are needed).
In this field, we have another variable that studies tend not to consider: the actions of the pro-life and disability-rights movements may have served as a brake on suicide reasoning being applied too broadly.
The Consistent Life Ethic, which opposes all forms of killing human beings with a focus on when such killing is socially approved, also holds that these forms of killing are connected. Violence forms a web, causing more violence – and stopping violence is also in that web, stopping more violence. Studies on suicide back this idea up: violence unsurprisingly leads to more suicides, and preventing that violence (as seen in the abortion-regulating legislation mentioned above) may help to prevent suicides.
Suicide prevention efforts targeted at individuals are a crucial service. But when wider societal violence is at the root of so many suicides, preventing that violence is also crucial to preventing subsequent despair and suicide.
For posts on similar topics, see:
Figuring out Euthanasia: What Does it Really Mean?