You could take a car and see how long, if you ran it at 100 mph or 120 mph, before something went bang, i.e. the point at which the car ceases to function. This establishes a parameter. Until that point is reached, the car will function. It is the same with a general principle. For example; cannibalism, which is, generally speaking, wholly forbidden. But someone could say; ‘what about if you’re in a plane that crashes in the mountains and there’s no other food etc. etc. – a ‘lifeboat situation’, and we could dwell on this, thinking ‘what would we do?’. What happens to the general principle at the point of ‘breaks down’?
There are two choices; it no longer applies; or it still applies. If we affirm that the general principle holds no matter what, the problem will move to examining equity. The unsucessful defence can be reassessed in case it provides a plea for mitigation i.e. mercy. If it ceases to hold, by contrast, the possibility opens that a claim of defence by necessity or consent may be made. The following is considered on the basis that the former applies, i.e. it holds.
Is there an inalienable right to commit suicide?
No, because such a right, if it existed would have to derive from the right you have over your body. But the act of suicide would destroy the body. The right over the body would perish alongside. To use a derived right to destroy the principle is logically absurd. However, this is a philosophical point. It should not confuse us when considering suicide from a legal point of view.
Firstly if someone commits suicide they are beyond any legal sanction, having ceased to exist. If someone attempts suicide but fails, no one else can claim this as a violation of their property, as they have no property in the person of the would-be suicidee.
If, however, the suicide attempt involved driving a hired car off a cliff, the owners of the car, if not the cliff as well, will most likely have a valid claim of trespass against their own property.
What if Smith assists Jones to commit suicide? What general rules are applicable? Surely, that which prohibits the taking of a life. If any general rules are broken then a crime will have been committed. Let us quickly consider these two examples (A) Smith puts the pistol in Jones’ hand. Jones pulls the trigger; or (B) Smith pulls the trigger on Jones.
In the case of (B) the general rule is against shooting someone to death, unless it’s justified in self-defence. The crime is to take away a life. Smith would be destroying Jones’ inalienable property – a definite trespass.
But in the case of (A) Smith has not done this. I suggest an appeal to the rule of logic. Thus, if we accept the logical absurdity of a right to suicide, then Smith cannot be blamed if Jones acts in an absurd way by shooting himself, as Smith cannot be expected to know that Jones will not act logically.
From this view, assisted suicide must remain invalid as a defence against a charge of manslaughter in the case of (B), although not necessarily in the case of (A).
Suicide is an exceptional event. It is contrary to the general run of things. Notwithstanding its exceptionality, it cannot escape a breach of the general rules, so the only way it can be dealt with is through the principle of equity.
Such a principle is intended to take into account the personal tragedy often involved in such cases of assisted suicide. There is not, I believe, a widespread sentiment to bring the weight of the law down upon the grieving widower of a terminally-ill desirer of death, quite the contrary! The lobbying call is to ‘legalise’ this crime. However this goes too far, I believe. The onus to deliver justice and mercy
which rests with the judge and jury cannot be shirked.