Suicide - Right To Die, Wrong To Claim?

April 22, 2014| Von Ross Campbell | Life | English

The growth in the number of assisted suicides and a rising trend for unassisted suicides, possibly linked to the economic crisis, is raising important questions for life insurers. It’s likely that the industry is going to see more cases where suicide is the cause of death and, given the inherent legal and moral complexities, having a blanket approach to claims will no longer be tenable.

Legislation covering assisted suicide and euthanasia varies. In some regions, notably the Middle East, it is prohibited in all forms. In Benelux countries as well as some U.S. states, (active) physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is allowed. In Switzerland, (passive) non-physician-assisted suicide (NPAS) has been legal for over 60 years, and any mentally competent person has the right to obtain a lethal substance – which must be taken without external assistance – to end his or her life.

In the U.K. euthanasia is defined as the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering; for example, a doctor gives a terminal cancer patient a fatal dose of muscle relaxants in order to end his or her life. But the line between PAS as euthanasia and the more common and less controversial practice of palliative sedation is still blurred. In 2012 the Commission on Assisted Dying concluded that a new legal framework is needed to clarify the current “inadequate and incoherent” legal status of assisted suicide in the U.K.

Meanwhile, after the 2008 global economic crisis, unassisted suicide rates increased in Europe and North America, particularly for men and in countries with higher levels of job loss. This trend could tempt more insurers to look again at exclusions, which have become less common. But that raises the problem of whether wider psychological causes can or should be excluded, too. If a person who is healthy at the time of application later develops a psychotic depression that drives him or her to suicide, is it really so different to dying from an unforeseen heart attack?

Whether dealing with unassisted, PAS or NPAS cases, it’s clear that insurance claims managers have to navigate a complex maze of moral and legal opinion before making hard decisions on individual cases. So the onus is on insurance companies to clearly articulate their stance on the different ways and circumstances in which people take their lives - an across the board position is no longer a defensible option.

Visit the April edition of Risk Insights for further trends and issues on the subject of suicide, including a focus piece by my colleague Claire Henshall on the complexities of paying assisted death claims in the U.K.


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