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Ethics of Suicide
May 2000

Q. What are the ethics of suicide? Are there cases when it is right, or is it always wrong?

A. There are two types of suicide. The first is when a person takes their own life unassisted, and the second is when a person takes their life assisted by another, oftentimes a physician. Assisted suicide has received much publicity lately, especially given the new law in Oregon. However, I take it from your question that you are interested in the ethics of a person committing suicide without assistance.

All ethics are somewhat based in culture. For example, during World War II the suicide of the kamikaze pilots of Japan was considered not only ethical but an important contribution to their emperor, and indeed an honor. In this country, suicide is generally considered wrong. However, many believe that those who are in extreme pain or incredibly disabled or near the end of their life without any hope for improvement, are justified in suicide.

Additional reading on suicide is available at many places. You might consider discussing the ethics of treating suicidal patients (Schmidt, TA; Zechnich, AD. Suicidal patients in the ED: ethical issues. Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America, 1999 May, 17(2):371-83). Also, the journal Medical and Law has many interesting articles (especially on assisted suicide) such as: Wecht, CH. The right to die and physician-assisted suicide: medical, legal, and ethical aspects. Medicine and Law, 1998, 17(4):581-601.

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