The Right to Suicide

This has sort of come up in some recent discussions I’ve had.  But it’s an interesting philosophical question that I haven’t been able to completely answer or justify, so I’m throwing this out there for anyone to comment on.

Should people have the right to commit suicide?

First, of all, let me say that I’ve only known two people who (to my knowledge) attempted suicide, both were not successful.  So, in terms of emotional bias on the issue, I don’t think I have much.  Some with more emotional attachment on the issue may have stronger opinions.  And I would ask that those with strong emotional commitments one way or another try to read dispassionately and consider what I’m saying here.

So let me tell you what I think and why, then some of the other side of the arguments and some of the other side of those arguments.  I’m sure I will leave something out, so feel free to comment below.

Let me also say this, some of the people that I know that are most for any and all human rights are still against suicide.  Does that position make any sense?  Can you be for making drugs legal and yet against suicide? 

My thoughts are based on pure human rights.  You should have the right to do whatever you want, provided it does not harm or interfere with another person’s rights.  You shouldn’t steal because you are taking something that someone else worked hard for.  You shouldn’t commit murder because you are taking away someone else’s right to life.

On the other hand, if someone is attempting to take away your rights, then they have forfeited their rights in the social compact.

Suicide, regardless of the emotional strain that it puts on family and loved ones, only harms one’s self.  In that regard, suicide is much like drugs and other, legal, self destructive behaviors.  Some people will engage in self-destructive behaviors.  It’s human nature to test the limits.  Alcohol is legal, yet many people drink to the point where their body fails because of the alcohol content.  Yet, that isn’t illegal… unless you drive like that.

The emotional strain of suicide on relatives and friends is not to be taken lightly.  But consider the condition of a person who has been mentally and physically abused for several decades.  The only escape may well be suicide.  (We’ll get to therapy in a minute.)

Likewise, a person with a terminal illness.  Which would you rather deal with several years of watching someone you dearly love wither away and die slowly in pain and then a funeral… or just a funeral and be done with it?  As someone who has watched this occur, I know that the mental and physical and emotional stress of watching someone die over a period of ten years, unable to even care for themselves at the most basic level… well it’s a hell of a thing.

I won’t talk about that ‘sudden, life saving scientific miracle’ that wouldn’t have a chance to work if the person had lived a few more months.  Those types of things do not exist.  Either a cure is in the works (and hopefully doctors will know about it and get the patient into a trial) or no one has a clue and medical miracles do not appear in just a few months or even years.  FDA trials can take years and nothing is going to be used without that approval.

Now, the therapy bit.  Can the person who is contemplating suicide be saved?  Maybe, I’m not talking here about someone who has just broken up with their boyfriend/girlfriend and is despondent.  I’m talking about someone who is fundamentally, at the genetic level suicidal.

As an aside, I would like to speak a moment about genetics and behavior.  It is surprising to realize how much our behavior is genetic.  I say this with confidence because of the genetic legacy of my father.  I am constantly tempted to practices that I loathe because of genetics.  Why do I know it’s genetics?

My father left me when I was 8.  He was rarely around and rarely (i.e. never) involved in my life.  I spent my life with my mother and her father, who was, a great man… not perfect, but a heck of a lot better than my dad.  Yet, even today, more than 30 years later, I find myself copying mannerisms from my dad.  The certain way I hold a cup for example.

So, little learning (yes, there was some) and only genetics, yet I am more like my father than I am comfortable admitting… and I hate it.

So, I do think that there is a powerful genetic component to such things like depression and suicidal behavior.

Can that person be ‘fixed’ with therapy.  Well, there’s two considerations here, the first is, “I don’t think so”.  At least, not entirely.  They can probably be brought to a more functional stage, but there will always be that core of them that is waiting for the chance to snap and ‘break free’ of their therapy.  They may never snap, they may.  There’s no way to tell.

Likewise, can a person who has been programmed a certain way for decades, be deprogrammed in a couple of hour long sessions a few times a week?  And once that person has been ‘fixed’, how do we know who the real person is?

But, my question is, do we have the right to reprogram a person into a mold that the rest of society finds acceptable.  Make no mistake about it, that’s what much of therapy (at this level) is… reprogramming a person into something different.

That’s kind of a slippery slope.  If we think it’s ok to reprogram a person to avoid suicide, when does it become OK to reprogram them to not commit murder, or to be a particular religion, or to buy a particular brand of soda?

It is almost a trivial exercise to reprogram a person, given the right conditions.  Examples go as far back as the Bible and almost surely all the way back to prehistoric man, including Homo erectus.  When a woman is kidnapped and placed into close proximity to her captor for years, utterly dependent on that captor, it is likely that she will eventually fall in love with the captor.  It’s the Stockholm Syndrome.  I use women here because those are the early examples, but it can be applied to anyone, even animals.

Do we have the right to reprogram someone to be something that they aren’t?  I think we would all agree that stopping murder is a good thing, but do we have the right to change a person into something else to prevent murder?  I don’t have that answer.

In general I think ‘no’, but… stopping murder… what if we could?

In the same way, do we have the right to fundamentally alter someone who is suicidal?  The human psyche isn’t a menu that you can pick and choose from.  Everything that makes that person who and what he/she is, is inexorably linked with everything else.  Take away the depression and you might lose Beethoven’s or Cobain’s musical ability. Take away the depression and you might take away their ability to feel, resulting in a psychopath.  Who knows?

Now, like I said, that 16 year-old whose girlfriend just broke up with him, yes, put them in therapy.  That’s what it is good for.  Rebuilding the core of the person, helping them to see that their entire life is not dependent on their relationships (or anything else besides themselves).

I mentioned two cases here.  Of course, every person and every suicide attempt is unique and we really can’t boil them down into a handful of case types.

So that’s the question, in addition to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… do we have the right to force life on someone who doesn’t want it?



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One Response to The Right to Suicide

  1. Lisa says:

    I completely agree with your argument… And I’ve read many.
    Here’s the situation….
    What if you’re a 50 year old woman. .. Not a heartbroken teenager, physically abused partner, bullied person, etc… But simply a person who has tried over, and over and over and over again to try to “fit in and belong” somewhere??? ANYWHERE…. To no avail. You’ve been labeled, medicated, psychoanalized, “shrunk”, befriended, and done all the self help bullshit you can get your hands on, but you still simply don’t “get it”. At some point a person just gets SO tired of it all. It’s truly exhausting to keep beating your head against a brick wall!! Just when u think u find someone who MAYBE might understand, you end up doing or saying something that makes them uncomfortable and u never hear from them again, but u don’t have a clue as to what you did or said wrong!!
    Eventually… U go through life pretending nothing matters, and after awhile, nothing really does.
    Ethically…. Is it now ok and socially acceptable to commit suicide since it’s obvious that you will never understand how to function properly in mainstream society… Or ever know how to do so??
    Please share your thoughts…..

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