Should a daily newspaper transmit specific information on how to commit suicide by prescription drugs?
That is the question posed by The Post's prominent review Aug. 25 of "Last Wish," a book by television reporter Betty Rollin. In her book, she tells of helping her mother, who was suffering from ovarian cancer, commit suicide and gives the precise names, dosage and method of administering the fatal drugs.
In his review in the Book World section, Post reporter Benjamin Weiser, who won an award for his series, "As They Lay Dying," repeats the specific information. He said the decision to include the details was not made lightly and involved reflection by him and consultations with three editors. The go-ahead brought the precise information to more than a million Post readers and probably thousands more, since the content of Book World is also bought by 27 other newspapers.
Mr. Weiser defends the decision on the grounds that the prescriptions were "one of the essentials of the book" and "the ethical problems didn't convince me they outweighed" the desirability of printing the material.
Brigitte Weeks, Book World editor, said the information was "a measure of the serious nature of the book" and there was "no practical reason not to run it." It would be difficult to "obtain those drugs," she added.
Two sources at the National Institute of Mental Health had a contrary view. Dr. Julius Segal, director of the institute's Division of Communications and Education, said, "Given what has been observed about imitative, or copycat, behavior in other contexts -- hijackings, violent crimes, peculiar stunts -- the possibility exists that a reader of this review would view the prescription for suicide as speaking directly to him or her. I don't believe the numbers involved would be very great, but even if one or two casualties resulted, it would have been prudent not to include the specifics."
Dr. Harold Pincus, special assistant to the head of NIMH, suggested that journalists should "weigh risk versus benefits."
"I am not sure how much was added to the review by using the specifics," he said. "We might have a more potent suicide attempt than otherwise because they were included."
Another source disputed doubts that a doctor would prescribe the drug in the amount stipulated in the review and suggested that elderly patients afflicted with pain might already have the drugs in their medicine cabinets.
Dr. Segal pointed out that writing about such matters for a "vast, unseen audience" was risky since there was no chance for the writer to modify or clarify information in the light of a patient's condition or reactions.
Dr. Segal's agency estimated last year that at any given time, 29 million Americans -- nearly one in five adults -- suffer psychiatric disorders ranging from mildly disabling anxiety to severe schizophrenia. Post reporter Cristine Russell's report on the seven-year NIMH study said it revealed "a surprising frequency of anxiety disorders in the population."
Newspapers are not "common carriers" for all information that comes to hand. With space limited, editors pick and choose, and certain areas are already subject to great restraint -- for example, juvenile crimes, identification of rape victims, obscene or profane language or sexual explicitness -- so withholding a suicide formula would not be unique.
It is difficult for a writer to anticipate the mental state of readers who may come upon the review. For some, the specifics of how to end it all by prescription drugs may be welcome, preferable to the difficulties in procuring a gun or leaving a sickbed to jump a bridge railing. The very appearance of such information in a newspaper -- or book -- attracts attention and tends to make it convenient and seem acceptable.
In my opinion, this is one set of specifics newspapers could do without. The risks involved in publication outweigh the benefits gained by including the meticulous details.