December 4, 2022

Blackstone on suicide

Hi there, 

Of the study of the law I confess that I have lived many years in happy ignorance. However, the other day I happened to browse through a copy of a legal classic written in 1766, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Its endless, rhythmic, periodic sentences, its encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient customs and its precision make it fascinating, if demanding, reading. It has had an immense influence upon the American legal system, perhaps even more than in England itself.  

Blackstone’s analysis of suicide is interesting. “The law of England wisely and religiously considers, that no man has a power to destroy life, but by commission from God, the author of it: and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offense; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who has an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest crimes.”

As for the penalty, a felon who had jumped off rather than just plopped off his twig was now beyond the reach of the law. So punishment of his crime could reach only his property and reputation. His property was forfeited to the king and his body was buried, unattended, by night, at a crossroads, with a stake driven through it. “The letter of the law herein borders a little upon severity,” observed Blackstone drily. 

More than two centuries later and 40 years after the decriminalisation of suicide in Canada, the great jurist would be astonished at how attitudes have changed. This week a judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that disabled people of sound mind who wish to commit suicide have a right to be assisted in doing so. Why? Because it is legal and therefore impediments are discriminatory. 

Again, I make no claim to legal expertise, but it seems to me that — allowing for his rudimentary knowledge of mental illness and the shift in our views on religion — Blackstone was wiser than the BC judge. He regarded suicide as one of the highest of crimes because it represented resignation from the human community. Other people — our family, our relatives, our friends, fellow citizens — have a part in our continued existence. In that light, the reasoning in the BC decision seems appallingly superficial. What do you think? 

Cheers,

Michael Cook
This week a judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that disabled people of sound mind who wish to commit suicide have a right to be assisted in doing so.
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