We’ve all been touched by the terrible fact of suicide. Some of us, by the death of a friend or a relative. All of us, surely, by the deaths of celebrities like the wonderful actor Robin Williams, and Anthony Bourdain, the fascinating broadcaster chef and traveller. It’s surprising how many people in the public eye end up taking their lives – here’s one list. They are often severely depressed – in Robin Williams’ case, as part of a complex illness. You yourself may have had suicidal thoughts. If you have, please please tell someone - and get help.
But there are many kinds of suicide.
“Suicide bombers,” for example, kill themselves so they can kill others for a cause. They’re in a category all of their own.
Then there are suicides who take their own lives to escape justice. The most celebrated example is that of Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy American financier who was also a convicted paedophile and who faced up to 45 years in prison for many further offences. He hanged himself in his prison cell in New York a few weeks ago – and in the process denied his many victims the satisfaction of a court hearing (and compensation).
And of course there is “medical” suicide, about which we hear quite a bit as campaigners for euthanasia, (having doctors kill patients) use phrases like “physician-assisted suicide” to try and sugar the pill of what they are after. The idea seems to be that if the doctor is just helping out it’s just a suicide. And suicide, the assumption is, is basically OK.
Just because something is sad does not make it OK. When I was a teenager the father of a friend of mine who lived just up the road tried to kill his whole family – and, tragically, succeeded in killing three of them. It was a desperately sad situation. He loved his family. But, the papers reported, he was in debt, and driven to desperation. In his warped way he wanted to save them from being poor. We naturally feel terribly sorry for him. What he did was completely different from a burglar getting in through the window and killing them. But however sad it was, it was also utterly wicked.
That’s a dramatic example, but it makes the point. When someone does something desperate and wicked because he or she is under pressure, or depressed, or sick, we can have plenty of sympathy with them. But what they have done is still evil.
Many people don’t realise that, until not too long ago, suicide was also illegal. Of course, it was a rather curious crime. If you succeeded in taking your life, there was not much the courts could do to you (though they could hurt your family – see below). If, on the other hand, you tried and failed – an attempted suicide – you could be prosecuted. In the year 1956, according to an article in The Times of London, there were 5387 assisted suicides known to the police. Of these, 613 men and women were prosecuted. Most got light punishments, but 33 were sent to prison.
What’s more, while trying to kill yourself has not been a crime since 1961, helping someone else – assisting in someone’s suicide – still is. And, of course, everyone agrees that we should prevent someone trying to take his or her own life – whether you are a passer-by heroically stopping someone jump from a bridge, or a doctor pumping out a stomach. In other words, while trying to kill yourself is no longer a crime, suicide is definitely disapproved of in the law.
Years ago I read a history of suicide in English history and was struck by just how much it was disapproved. Until 1822, for example, if you killed yourself all of your family’s property could be confiscated by the Crown.
There were several forces driving this disapproval. One was that you didn’t belong to yourself, but to the King (and your feudal lord). Another, behind that, was of course the Christian belief that you do not belong to yourself because you belong to God. The point is: suicide, as the word suggests, is actually homicide. It’s homicide of the self. You’re no more entitled to kill yourself than to kill anyone else.
These are harsh words, but we need to remember them as we hear slippery arguments for euthanasia based on the idea that it’s “really only a doctor helping you commit suicide.” Think about it: if you and a doctor are collaborating on ending your life, that’s two of you committing one homicide together.
I think the balance they struck back in 1961 was a good one. I’m glad suicide is no longer a crime, and that people who try and kill themselves don’t end up in prison. But I’m also glad it’s a crime to help someone, because taking a human life – even your own – can never be right. Especially if you believe I Cor. 6:19, 20:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
By Nigel Cameron