Objectives: Several US states have legalized or decriminalized physician-assisted suicide (PAS) while others are considering permitting PAS. Although it has been suggested that legalization could lead to a reduction in total suicides and to a delay in those suicides that do occur, to date no research has tested whether these effects can be identified in practice. The aim of this study was to fill this gap by examining the association between the legalization of PAS and state-level suicide rates in the United States between 1990 and 2013.
Methods: We used regression analysis to test the change in rates of nonassisted suicides and total suicides (including assisted suicides) before and after the legalization of PAS.
Results: Controlling for various socioeconomic factors, unobservable state and year effects, and state-specific linear trends, we found that legalizing PAS was associated with a 6.3% (95% confidence interval 2.70%-9.9%) increase in total suicides (including assisted suicides). This effect was larger in the individuals older than 65 years (14.5%, CI 6.4%-22.7%). Introduction of PAS was neither associated with a reduction in nonassisted suicide rates nor with an increase in the mean age of nonassisted suicide.
Conclusions: Legalizing PAS has been associated with an increased rate of total suicides relative to other states and no decrease in nonassisted suicides. This suggests either that PAS does not inhibit (nor acts as an alternative to) nonassisted suicide, or that it acts in this way in some individuals but is associated with an increased inclination to suicide in other individuals.