Guest post: This isn’t the loophole

Originally a comment by gormanator on When self-ownership applies.

This business of trying to noodle out the morality of suicide in a framework of “rights” seems unlikely to result in any sort of useful moral clarity. It reminds me of the standard libertarian argument: “no one has a right to coerce another human to do anything” (sounds reasonable enough, if you don’t think too hard for counterexamples), ergo I can’t prevent you from owning a machine gun because that would be coercive. That’s just a shitty way to frame a political philosophy. The world is just… more complicated than that.

When I was twelve, I got to watch my mom try to kill herself. (Thankfully, she survived, but it was close.) In the 16 years between then and now, I’m still affected by that experience and its aftermath. The ripple effects can last a long time. They would have been much worse if she had actually succeeded. I reject out of hand this idea that somehow the police and paramedics should have allowed her to die on account of “bodily autonomy.”

John Horstman, @33, has a clever loophole for the “parent problem,” that somehow seems to miss the point:

people who opt to procreate owe it to their offspring to try to stick around to care for them until they can care for themselves.

By this logic, presumably one parent is allowed to kill themselves then? And realistically speaking, the children of suiciders (at least in the US) would be cared for either by family members or the foster system, which, while far from optimal, won’t result in the children starving to death in either case. At least in my own experience, and I think in the experience of a lot of other people, the damage to children is far more emotional than logistical. This isn’t the loophole that’s going to get you out of solving the parent problem if you want to frame this discussion in terms of “rights.”

The right to bodily autonomy is a useful rule of thumb, that works most of the time for sorting out issues in everyday experience. It’s widely applicable enough that it makes some sense to use the word “right.” It’s a great argument for why women should have access to abortion. It’s even a great argument for assisted dying. But it’s not magic. Just because we attached the word “right” to it as some sort of approximation doesn’t mean that it’s universally applicable. In engineering terms, it fails in edge cases. I don’t have a forumula for when we should let people kill themselves. In some cases, they should obviously be allowed to. A lot of cases are a lot more complicated–what if I’m really drunk and I want to kill myself? Do the police stop me? I’ve struggled with depression for my whole life–and most of the time I don’t want to kill myself. A couple times a year I contemplate suicide. Present me is pretty glad that past me wasn’t allowed to kill myself, but maybe future me won’t feel the same way? It’s a deeply personal and thorny and complicated moral problem that I don’t know how to sort out in general. But saying “bodily autonomy” as if it gets you out of thinking about the complexities of the situation is just lazy.


  1. Shatterface says

    The right to ‘body ownership’ is a rather loose, misleading term based on economic metaphors.

    You don’t actually own your body, you are your body.

    You are an embodied consciousness.

    There’s no ‘you’ outside that body to claim ownership.

  2. Shatterface says

    This does make me wonder why the religious right, which is soooooo concerned with abortion, doesn’t appear to give a fuck about suicide.

    Is that true? My impression was that suicide was a ‘mortal sin’ and you couldn’t even be buried in church grounds. They’re also dead against euthanasia.

    Not to mention that suicide invalidates insurance policies for professions beloved by the right (police, military, etc.)

  3. Andrew B. says

    I agree that arguments can’t be won by just using terms like “bodily autonomy,” because as you said, it’s a general rule of thumb and not the end-all-be-all basis for determining rights/ethics.

    My comments yesterday came from a very personal place, because suicide isn’t some distant, abstract discussion for me, it’s a real possibility that I’ve been contemplating for decades. When authors like Hecht who (seem to) have no personal relationship with suicide/depression (apart from those close to her that do) approach this issue from a very academic standpoint, issuing high-and-mighty decrees and lofty ideals about what I/we “owe” society and our future selves, I start to lose my temper. This is my life, and I’m not some theoretical person who can be discussed as though I were some two-dimensional personality-type. Our experiences can’t be expressed in words and certainly can’t be fully appreciated by people who don’t have them every damn day. I see this book as a kind of intrusion into the personal lives of people like me by people who don’t know how to help us and don’t seem to have much interest in learning how.

    Hecht is an author. Writing is her craft, and it’s how she relates to issues, but not every problem can be solved with endless navel-gazing and discussions. What I’ve realized is that people can’t always provide the help that others need; they can only give the help they know. And books like hers don’t help me. Hecht’s book seems like it gives plenty of reasons not to kill yourself but no actual reasons to live, and those are two very different things.

    I’m (mostly) sorry for the things I wrote yesterday, I always look back on my “contributions” and see nothing but babyish outbursts from someone with average writing skills.

  4. says

    The whole conversation about suicide is lopsided. The right to do something does mean that you have a right to do something that might have negative ripple effects, that will emotionally affect other people. Does someone with a spouse and kids have a right to divorce? It will emotionally affect the kids and of course the spouse. Does a previously closeted transgendered person have a right to come out when they have a family depending on them? They might lose their job. They might lose income, which will affect anyone who depends on them.

    This isn’t to say that you ought to feel free to do whatever you want. It’s just that A) whether you have a right to do something or not isn’t the same thing as whether doing it is right and B) the conversation about suicide doesn’t apply the same principles people generally apply. Suicide is taboo. There’s always immense social pressure to not do it. The person who wants to do it is thought of as insane and therefore unable to make rational decisions. So I’m not saying suicide is generally a good option, but I wish we’d show more respect for people who choose it.

  5. A Masked Avenger says

    Shatterface, #2:

    The right to ‘body ownership’ is a rather loose, misleading term based on economic metaphors.
    You don’t actually own your body, you are your body.

    That’s actually less obvious than it appears on its face. Every limb, and many organs, including portions of major organs, and even portions of your brain, can be removed without killing you. Which of them “IS” you?

    If you touch any bit of me, such as my legs or my anus, without my consent, then I will make you stop. Depending on the circumstances, I might defend myself forcibly, or press criminal charges. I’ll do that because they’re my legs and my anus, despite the fact that I could become a double amputee with a colostomy and I’d still be me.

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    It’s just that A) whether you have a right to do something or not isn’t the same thing as whether doing it is right and B) the conversation about suicide doesn’t apply the same principles people generally apply.


    I think this is the answer to the guest-OP’s completely correct observations. We have lots of rights to do things that aren’t a good idea. Most uses of free speech are a bad idea, since there are way more ways to be wrong, hurtful and unhelpful than there are to be right and helpful. That doesn’t negate the right.

    Note: I’m not talking about hate speech here. That’s a separate subject, and more than difficult enough to derail this thread.

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    “I’m (mostly) sorry for the things I wrote yesterday, I always look back on my “contributions” and see nothing but babyish outbursts from someone with average writing skills.”

    I’m afraid I must disagree 🙂

  8. says

    Masked Avenger: But if you were in a traffic accident, and brought unconcious to the hospital, would you object afterwards that medical touched you without your consent in order to save your life?

    Absolutes are tricky, there are always circumstances where they don’t fit.

  9. quixote says

    (Gormanator has a strong personal view, but it would be no way to run a country. Start taking away people’s rights to autonomy because sometimes heartrending consequences happen, and you’ll have a society where only some subset gets to make decisions for everyone. That is a regression from humanism. Rights — meaning those rules that apply to everyone equally — are the only framework that can give clarity.

    May I suggest promoting Lee Delay’s comment?)

  10. Shari says

    @1 Marcus – the prohibition on suicide is pretty huge for Catholics, and I would assume so for the fundamentalist Right. (oy, the irony inherent in that label). It’s the unfortunate genesis of the complete lack of compassion for suicides on F news when they sat in judgement on Robin William’s death. Not to mention the lack of compassion for his wife, former wives, and children… They are private citizens and it would be so little effort to spare them – and anyone – else grieving the suicide of a loved one, or contemplating it themselves….

  11. says

    The right to do something does mean that you have a right to do something that might have negative ripple effects, that will emotionally affect other people.

    I would probably phrase that in terms of rights and responsibilities – where a responsibility is a shared understanding of how someone will act, whereas a right is their ability to act that way regardless. So in your context I would say that perhaps one partner in a marriage has a right to divorce the other, but may have a responsibility not to, if they had a shared understanding with their partner that they were going to raise a puppy together, or whatever. Our common use of language supports this; we might say someone is “shirking their responsibility” if they kite off to hike the appalachian trail unexpectedly, while acknowledging that they have a right to do so even if it’s a bad idea. I have a right to drink myself to death but a responsibility not to do so as long as there are people I share an understanding with that I won’t, etc.

  12. says

    the prohibition on suicide is pretty huge for Catholics

    Yeah, but you don’t see them lining up to picket outside of suicide hotline offices, to show their support. Officially they give a fuck – unofficially they are much much more concerned with interfering with womens’ reproductive rights. I am aware that there are catholics who protest right to die legislation, and probably even a minority who protest state-committed murder, but their concern for “life” seems disproportionate.

  13. A Masked Avenger says


    There are lots of situations where I would do my best to act as I THINK someone else would want me to, such as providing first aid at an accident. But I do it realizing that it carries a risk. Lots of things I might do to be neighborly have the potential to get me sued, arrested, or otherwise have bad consequences.

    One reason “Good Samaritan” laws exist is that this has in fact happened many times. Among other things, such laws indemnify me if I try in good faith to help but in the process I injure someone, or something goes wrong, or I give animal-based treatments to an ethical vegan who would rather have died than exploit animals for medicine.

    So I agree with you that I would help an unconscious person. I wouldn’t agree that it was a limitation in their rights, though. It’s me assuming trusteeship, while they’re unable to exercise their own rights, and it incurs a responsibility to act in THEIR interests as best I can, as well as a risk of consequences if I fail to represent their interests to their satisfaction when they are no longer incapacitated.

  14. says

    @Kitty, post 16

    I want the right to make my exit at a time and in a peaceful manner of my own choosing.

    How could I deny that right to someone else?

    Interesting thought. It kind of makes me notice the things other than suicide in the OP. Namely, graphically doing it in front of children. There are plenty of things, such as sex, that we don’t do in front of children.

  15. John Morales says

    brianpansky @17, I doubt any rational, deliberate and informed decision made compos mentis would involve such circumstances.

    My attitude towards this issue could be summed-up as enlightened self-interest:
    Were I in that sort of position, I would certainly want the option.

    Simple as that.

    (I’ve no problem with regulating it strictly, but it should not be unlawful)

  16. says

    Shit, dude, I’m not saying, “Hey, go ahead and splatter yer brains in front of (and possibly on) yer kids,” here, of course some discretion is required!

    But there are things you can’t control for, and kids are unpredictable little boogers who get into everything. .

    Additionally, you’d have to consider the method of death. Something like hanging or shooting, sure, that’d be traumatic to witness, regardless of the circumstances. But what about the end-stage cancer patient who wants her family there when she takes the final dose of morphine? Dying can be an intimate act, and nobody should ever have to die alone.

  17. says


    Additionally, you’d have to consider the method of death.

    I did consider this. Note my use of the word “graphically”.

    Hope I cleared up any confusion.

  18. says

    @23, Kitty

    Well, I knew you weren’t disagreeing with me. But your reaction looked to me as though you thought I was disagreeing with YOU.

    There’s a difference 😛

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