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The Rights and Laws of Suicide

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 24, 2011

The recent European Court ruling that it is a fundamental human right to freely commit suicide raises all kinds of questions. In another context, the very image of a tiny body of men and women getting together to make up fundamental human rights would be highly amusing. But of course, this is just another example of the paganization of Western culture.

When you think about some older laws from a more Christian era, the question of whether there is a right to suicide can be confusing. Until relatively recently, suicide was considered a crime in many U. S. states and in England, a clear reflection of the prevailing Christian belief that suicide is a gravely immoral act. This criminal law exposed to prosecution those who unsuccessfully attempted suicide, though in the United States (and I imagine also in England), there was a strong reluctance to prosecute. In these cases, we may safely presume that the law was intended to be more of a teacher than a disciplinarian.

But thinking about the potential criminality of suicide does raise the rather obviously legitimate question of whether suicide should be a matter of criminal law at all. Unfortunately, for many, it would appear to be a short step from the premise that suicide ought not to be against the law to the conclusion that suicide must be a human right. But short though this step may be, it is hardly logical. It merely confuses the absence of legal restraint with rights.

In a positivist system of thought, such faulty logic might not be obvious. Legal positivism holds that right and wrong are determined by law, rather than the other way around. The “other way around” is that our understanding of right and wrong is prior to human positive law. Instead, this understanding derives from the law of nature (assisted, in Christian and Jewish societies at least, by the light of Revelation), and so positive law is to be derived from a higher law, and is actually invalid when it contradicts it.

In careless speech even the most adamant natural law champion might say, “I have a right to do this or that, and you cannot stop me, because it is not against the law. It’s a free country!” Indeed, as youngsters my friends and I used to chant this ad nauseam, little knowing, first, that our countries were not so free as we thought and, second, that the absence of legal restraint is an insufficient definition of a human right. Careless speech, it seems, is not the same as logical argument.

Pope Benedict has frequently stressed that in discerning whether something is a human right, it is helpful to consider the duty (if any) to which that right is linked. In Caritas in Veritate, the Pope wrote:

[I]t is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere license…. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defense and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. (43)

A right might be ascribed to another person as a reflection of the general duty of all men toward others, or it might be ascribed to ourselves as a reflection of our own duties. For example, parents have a duty to educate their children; therefore we ought to be able to see that they have the right to do so without debilitating interference from other parties or the State. Or again, every human person (i.e., society generally) has a duty to provide the necessities of life to those in need (insofar as reasonably possible), and so we ought not to be surprised that a person who steals food because he is starving is not guilty of theft: in general, he has a right to the food.

It is impossible to situate a “right” to suicide within such an ethical framework of rights and duties. Manifestly, no person has a duty to die, whatever rapacious or weary care-givers may think. Rather, the impetus to take one’s own life arises not from a desire to serve, but from a desire to avoid service, that is, to avoid suffering. Suicide is very frequently considered noble or even obligatory in pagan societies precisely because such societies recognize neither the value nor the very real service of suffering.

However, while reflecting on duties is helpful, duties are not the source of rights; they are simply a key part of the ethical framework within which rights operate. Clearly, the parent’s right and duty to educate his child derive from his special relationship with the child; and the right of those who are starving to obtain something to eat, along with our duty to provide it, arises from their dignity as human persons—that is, from their nature and from the ends for which they were created, and for which the world and everything in it was created. It is such deeper reflection on the nature of things which leads us to formulate clear principles, such as the universal destination of goods.

In a Godless society, many important reflections become all but impossible. Nonetheless, in the last analysis the fact that we are incapable of bringing ourselves into existence ought to give us pause. This elemental fact strongly suggests that we must look beyond ourselves for an understanding of our nature and of the ends for which we exist. Moreover, it would seem to be a rather fundamental intuition of any sound mind that if we are not the authors of our own lives, then we can have no right to terminate them.

We may well be confused about these matters, but there is little excuse for being just plain stupid. At the very least, a little reflection ought to teach us that rights are much deeper than laws, and that nothing may be presumed about rights based on laws. All the presumptions ought to run the other way: Suddenly, it becomes necessary to think things through.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 26, 2011 11:39 AM ET USA

    There might not be an excuse for being stupid, but sadly there's no law against it, either. Following their logic, we have a RIGHT to be stupid. Which certainly goes well with our alleged right to an abortion and the unborn's complete lack of a right to life... You got to credit them with consistency - they are consistent in their stupidity and consistently turn logic on its head...