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Suicide

SUICIDE

A term derived from the Latin suicidium, meaning the taking of one's own life. In the broadest sense it is applied to any voluntary act by which one causes his own death. In the strictest moral sense it means an unlawful moral act, positive or negative, by which one directly causes his own death.

One can cause his own death voluntarily either by a positive act of self-destruction or by refusing or neglecting to do something known to be necessary for the preservation of one's life. The difference between a positive act and an omission is notable from a physical point of view, but it is of little moral consequence. To fail to do something physically and morally necessary to the preservation of life is the moral equivalent of a positive act of self-destruction. A man who bleeds to death because he will not close an open artery is no less a suicide than one who opens an artery with the intent of taking his own life.

Morality. Catholic moralists are generally agreed that direct suicide is intrinsically evil, and they hold therefore that no circumstances can ever justify it. Examples of suicide in cases in which its malice is less apparent have been the subject of much discussion. Samson's deed as recorded in Jgs 16.2930 and that of Eleazar as recorded in 1 Mc 6.46 would seem to be examples of indirect rather than direct suicide, although the distinction between the two was not clearly drawn by older authors who found difficulty in explaining the incidents. The deaths of Saul and Ahithophel (1 Sm 31.26 and 2 Sm 17.23) are recorded in the Scriptures without comment, and there is no need to justify them. The same is true of the suicide of Razis (2 Mc 14.4146); although the incident is narrated sympathetically, it is possible to regard suicide as an objectively wicked thing, but committed in inculpable ignorance of its malice.

If suicide is intrinsically evil, God could not command it, and it is not true, as some have alleged, that direct suicide is permissible if it is committed in response to a special inspiration of God, the Lord of life and of death. This is a solution proposed by some to explain the suicides of certain holy virgins, venerated as saints and martyrs, who killed themselves in defense of their virtue. However, virtue can be adequately defended by other means than suicide, and a person who is forcibly violated does not, on that account, lose her or his virtue. Surrendering One's Life. It is important to distinguish between the willing surrender of one's life and the deliberate taking of it. It has been common for some writers to refer to the former as indirect suicide and to apply the principle of double effect to justify it as in cases when a person knowingly gives up his life in the pursuit of some good end or to prevent some grave wrong. Examples are the soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to protect those around him, the truck driver who chooses to steer his vehicle over a precipice to avoid a collision with a school bus, the action of St. Maximillian kolbe who volunteered to take the place of a fellow prisoner who was sentenced to be executed, or an individual who dies on a hunger strike as part of a non-violent response to social injustice. More and more, writers avoid speaking of indirect suicide because such actions reflect neither the true nature of suicide as a choice to end one's life, nor an appropriate application of the principle of double effect. Rather, these examples embody the supreme charity of willingly sacrificing one's life for others in imitation of him who taught that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends (Jn 15, 13).

Pastoral Considerations. Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law denied ecclesiastic burial to individuals who committed suicide (c. 1240), the Church's pastoral attitude grew more lenient over time. While recognizing suicide is objectively ("materially") sinful, the culpability of the act depends on the state of mind of the individual. Illness or depression, for example, may diminish the person's freedom in acting. Great discretion is allowed the pastor in determining culpability, and in allowing the full rites of Christian burial.

Another question, both practical and urgent, that is difficult to resolve apart from knowing the particular requires concerns individuals engaged in guerilla activities, espionage, or other operations employed in modern warfare. If captured by the enemy, they may face the probability or even the certainty of interrogation under torture so artfully contrived that no one could be reasonably expected to endure it without breaking. People likely to be put in such a situation are not uncommonly given a capsule of poison to be used in case of capture. Can it be argued that a person, when captured under such circumstances, is on the point of becoming, in a material sense at least, an unjust aggressor against those whose secrets he possesses, and as such, may he be slain if there is no other way to control his aggression? Again, if an individual sees himself faced with the immediate prospect of becoming an aggressor in this way, can he legitimately take his own life? These and related questions require deep reflection and great sensitivity on the part of pastoral ministers.

See Also: euthanasia; health, care of.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 64.5. m. p. battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1982). a. salvatore, "Professional Ethics and Suicide: Toward an Ethical Typology," Ethics, Law, and Aging Review 6 (2000): 257-69.

[t. c. kane/

j. f. tuohey]

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