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Law and Suicide

The following is based on a legal analysis of suicide by Robert M. Byrn, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, in an article entitled “Compulsory Lifesaving Treatment for the Competent Adult,” Fordham Law Review, Volume 44, October 1, 1975.

Suicide had at one time been a crime with a penalty of “ignominious burial” and forfeiture of property. In the U.S. this penalty was abolished so that suicide is no longer strictly speaking a crime. But that does not make it lawful “in the sense that a right has been conferred.”

Professor Byrn cites a 16th-century judge’s legal objections to suicide:

  • It is an unnatural violation of the rules of self-preservation, because a “right” to suicide is the “apparent contradiction in a claim of right to destroy the life from which all rights flow.”
  • It is a breach of (God’s) commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” In modern law, “the value of human life qua human” means that killing oneself shows disvalue for human life qua human. This constitutes aggression against life, and treats life as property rather than unalienable.
  • Suicide is “against the King,” depriving him of a subject, “transformed in American law to an inherent function of government to protect human life and not allow its destruction by legally permitting self-destruction.
  • It is an “evil example” to the King’s subjects. So modern government “retains the power to bar conduct which will encourage suicide as an ‘evil example’ to other susceptible members of society.”
  • Attempted suicide – in some states a crime but not punished (see state laws here).

The 16th century citations may seem archaic to you, but remember that the natural law principles that govern a just society where all lives are protected and respected have never changed.

Aiding and abetting a suicide or a suicide attempt is in many states a crime.

Preventing another from committing suicide (or from inflicting serious harm to himself) by the use of reasonable force is legal in many states.