The historic Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington D.C., near the Americans United for Life offices, spans a picturesque stretch of the Rock Creek Parkway. Stately and tall, it’s been considered a landmark of neoclassical architecture since it was built in 1934. Unfortunately, in modern times it also gained a reputation as a “jumper’s bridge” – a bridge with easy access to the 12-story precipice, high enough to virtually ensure death. Thankfully, after the city installed a six-foot-high anti-suicide fence in January 1986, at the behest of a grieving father whose daughter had jumped from the bridge, the Ellington Bridge has seen far fewer deaths. And despite predictions by some mental health professionals and others opposed to the fence, the nearby and similarly situated Taft Bridge did not become the location of preference for the desperate and depressed, as suicides there did not appreciably rise – even though the Taft Bridge is barely a tenth of a mile from the Ellington Bridge and has no safety barriers.
What lessons can we learn from the Ellington Bridge, now restored to its proper place as a historic landmark, critical connector at the heart of our nation, and lovely masterwork of architecture?
Experts have long known, and good research shows, that barriers are highly effective at halting suicides, according to Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In an interview with the Washington Post, Harkavy-Friedman noted that intervention often makes the difference in the lives of persons contemplating suicide. “Suicides are impulsive acts, and the people who commit them are not thinking clearly, have trouble solving problems, have difficulty shifting gears, and weigh risks differently,” she said. “They’re going to grab whatever is available. They don’t change gears if that is thwarted, because they have rigid thinking in that moment…. If they get to the bridge and there is a barrier, they’re not going to shift gears. It’s as simple as that.”
Such efforts are therefore critical in battling America’s crisis-level epidemic of suicide, with the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) tallying nearly 45,000 suicides in 2016.Yet even in the midst of this crisis, with tens of thousands of irreparable losses – and as life advocates urgently work to promote lifelong mental health and well-being, preserve understanding of the unique value of each human being, and protect every life – anti-life activists have managed to pass medicalized suicide in six states and the District of Columbia under the deceptive banner of “Death with Dignity.”
At Americans United for Life, we fight hard against efforts to enact so-called “assisted suicide” regimes because they are simply legally endorsed suicide by another name. The push for a “right to die” with the help of a physician is being ushered in under the guise of “compassion,” “dignity,” and “control,” but the truth is that the legalization of such suicide, stripped of its euphemistic pretensions, is really only a doctor’s legal right to prescribe a massive overdose of barbiturates – sleeping pills, essentially – for a person under his care and thereby to secure a “safe” and “reliable” death for her (although it often fails to deliver even that) with no repercussions to himself.
Tellingly, suicide advocates like “Compassion and Choices” (formerly the “Hemlock Society”) don’t advocate for a “right” to kill oneself by just any means – jumping from a bridge, shooting oneself, or guessing how many pills it would take to do the job – because these methods are shocking, abhorrent, and untrustworthy. Instead, they insist on the “right” to a medicalized death at the hands of a doctor, who alone controls the legal authority to prescribe death-dealing drugs. Thus, the path to legally endorsed suicide, like abortion, depends upon securing the assistance of a medical professional, the very trusted leaders whose training has taught them to respect life and to “do no harm.” And just as we’re seeing the demand for “abortion access” give rise to an insistence that doctors and nurses participate in destroying life in the womb, we’re also seeing a growing threat to healthcare rights of conscience in states that have legalized suicide by physician.
The answer to the problem of suicide is the same, whether it’s a desperate desire to jump from a bridge or a more societally respectable decision for “death with dignity” by prescription suicide. We know that when a person considering suicide gets help from caring family, friends, and professionals and learns that their life has meaning and value, most find hope and choose life. That’s true for a depressed and overwhelmed teenager, a patient who’s received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or a senior with debilitating health. That’s the message of musician Logic’s inspiring song “1-800-273-8255,” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid – the title of the song is the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – which Logic has called the “most important song” he has ever written, as calls and outreach to the Lifeline have surged since the track’s release. Like the suicide barriers on “jumper’s bridges,” it’s people who care enough to intervene who make the difference in others’ lives.
That’s why Americans United for Life is about protecting precious human beings at every age of life, from conception through natural death. Every person should be embraced in the human family, and nothing can justify a failure to protect any innocent human life. From life-affirming pregnancy centers to conscientious doctors and nurses to caring friends and family members who are willing to intervene in the life of a depressed individual, we must be willing to serve as the safety nets to catch people slipping through the cracks, to “be the bridges” that build critical connections from person to person, lift people up, and inspire hope. We must be trusted bulwarks against the storms and provide the path that will guard human life from destruction.
A version of this article was first published in Defending Life 2019(© 2019 Americans United for Life) as “From the President.”
Linda Wheeler, “Duke Ellington Bridge Suicides Decline Since Installation of Fence,” Washington Post, Mar. 23, 1987.
Lenny Bernstein, “Why Suicide Barriers Work, Especially at Magnets Like the Golden Gate Bridge,”Washington Post, Mar. 27, 2014.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, “CDC: U.S. Suicide Rates have Risen Dramatically,” National Public Radio, Jun. 7, 2018. If someone you know has thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255), En Español 1 (888) 628-9454, Deaf and Hard of Hearing 1 (800) 799-4889, or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.