Jim White redefines Suicide

Comments on Jim White’s submission to the Health Committee on Euthanasia

Jim White, using the title “Right Reverend James White and describing himself as “Bishop of the Anglican Church”, writes the following in his submission to the Select Committee considering the petition of Hon Maryan Street et al on “medically-assisted dying”.

“When it comes to the consideration of suicide we, likewise, always lament the loss of life
but the moral evaluation of each suicide is located in the circumstances that surround it.
Of course, it should go without saying that some individual suicides are deeply misguided
acts for reasons of mental illness, drugs, impulsiveness and so on. Everything should be
done to prevent these suicides. Other individual suicides are just as surely adjudged as
right and even honourable acts. Thus, the soldier, who throws herself in the way of
certain danger and dies preventing harm to her comrades, is lauded. Or, in Christian
terms and to use an actual historical instance, Maximilian Maria Kolbe (8 January 1894 –
14 August 1941), who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger in Auschwitz, is
considered a saint and a martyr of charity. That is, a witness (martyr) to a greater good.
Such deaths, when the individual freely chooses them, are lauded. Such a death, if
another ordered it, receives a quite different (even the opposite) moral evaluation.
Thus, on occasion, a person, choosing for themselves and according to the weighing of
their own values, who commits suicide can be not only be adjudged to have acted
rationally but in a morally commendable way.
It is of note that some might consider the above cases are not suicide because the
intention was simply to save others (doctrine of double effect). However, this is not
correct. They are cases of self-determined and self-caused death albeit obviously chosen
‘for the good of others.’
(It also is of note here that within the Medically Assisted Dying debate, often cause for
greatest concern is that people might chose to die for the good of others (as adjudged by
themselves). While we want to be certain that there has been no coercion in this
decision it can be a legitimate reason for committing suicide. )”

In this submission, White claims that a soldier who dies preventing harm to her comrades commits suicide, and that Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who died at Auschwitz taking the place of a stranger, also committed suicide. However, the general usage of the word “suicide” would not include such deaths.

White is playing with language. By extending his use of the word “suicide” to include deaths that would not usually be regarded as suicide, he wants to persuade others to associate the moral character of these non-suicidal deaths to situations that many would regard as suicide such as medically-assisted dying. This is not a real argument. It is playing with words.

It appears that White regards as “suicide” any act taken by a person who knows that performing such an act would result in their death and which it subsequently does. (This would also label any such act which failed to ultimately result in their death as  an “attempted suicide”.)

What White fails to recognise is that suicide must also involve intention. The person, by performing the act (or having others perform the act), must intend to die. Their death is the purpose of the act. SImply knowing that the act will result in one’s death is not sufficient to call the act suicide. Where there is no intention to die, there is no moral dilemma. Recourse to the “doctrine of double effect” is unnecessary. The soldier who falls on a grenade to save her companions has no desire to die but knows that she will. We describe her action as that of self-sacrifice, not that of suicide. Maximilian Kolbe’s action was also that of self-sacrifice and not of suicide. Neither the soldier, nor Maximilian Kolbe would regard their actions as suicide.

White declares that those who consider the cases he supplies “are not suicide” are “incorrect”. White fails to recognise that it those who consider that these cases “are not suicide,”  who are using the word “suicide” with its usual meaning. How could they then be regarded as not being “correct’? While suicide may be an act designed “to save others”, it must also involve the intention to take one’s own life as the primary purpose. So, any act whose intention is “simply to save others” would be described as suicide by a only a very few people.

The implications of White’s position are dramatic. When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” [John 15:13] he is commending suicide. When Jesus started on his journey to Jerusalem knowing that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” [Mark 8:31] he had decided to commit suicide. I doubt if many theologians would hold such views.

Finally, Jim White is clearly making this submission as a “Bishop of the Anglican Church”, including his title as the “Right Reverend” in his submission. He is not simply acting as a private individual. If the Prime Minister where to make a comment in which he called himself “the Prime Minister of New Zealand”, everyone would know that he was speaking, not just as an individual, but as the Prime Minister. As far as I know, all decisions made by our Diocese, the General Synod, the Anglican Communion have been the opposite of what White is advocating. White’s use of his title and position in his submission is surely a matter of integrity.

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