April 09, 2007

Suicide Clause

In a column in today's Los Angeles Times, George Skelton tries to evenhandedly weigh the arguments for and against the "California Compassionate Choices Act" (AB 374) that was introduced recently in the state assembly. The law permits mentally competent people in the final stages of a terminal illness to obtain a doctor's prescription for lethal drugs that they can administer themselves. The law doesn't actually mention the word suicide. In part, that's because the use of word tends to have a huge effect on people's opinions about this issue. In a 2005 Gallup survey, 75% of respondents agreed that doctors should be allowed by law to "end the lives" of patients suffering from incurable diseases if the patient and his or her family requested it. But when the question was worded as permitting doctors to "assist the patient to commit suicide," only 58% of the respondents agreed.

But as I argued in an op-ed in the LA Times in February, suicide probably isn't the mot juste here anyway. Among other things, the word suggests mental imbalance, fanaticism, or desperation, which doesn't seem to describe the state of terminally ill people who decide to avail themselves of the option.

So I was a little surprised to see Skelton defending the use of "assisted suicide" by appealing to a dictionary definition that seems to restrict suicide to those of sound mind:

Sponsors can call it what they want, but the most descriptive term is what we're talking about: "assisted suicide." My Webster's describes "suicide" as "the act of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally, especially by a person. . . of sound mind." Sounds like AB 374 to me.

That is indeed how Merriam Webster's Eleventh Collegiate puts it. But why?

The relevant definition in the Collegiate reads in full:

the act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Now as a description of actual usage, that "especially" clause is plainly wrong. People have no hesitation about using suicide to describe the acts of people who are deranged, imbalanced, or clinically depressed -- in fact a certain irrationality is more-or-less implicit in the meaning of suicidal. And by the same token, people are often reluctant to speak of suicide when the choice to die seems defensible or at least rational, in the same way we don't use "homicide" to describe soldiers who kill in wartime. (The New York City medical examiner's office didn't list suicide as the cause of death for any of the people who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11; they recorded the deaths as homicides.)

Notably, there's no reference to the mental state of an actor in the definitions of suicide in other dictionaries. The OED gives simply "The or an act of taking one's own life, self-murder." The American Heritage defines the word as "The act or an instance of intentionally killing oneself." And the Eleventh Britannica gives "the act of intentionally destroying one's own life."

So how did that "sound mind" clause make its way into Merriam's definition? It originated in the definition of suicide that appeared in the 1909 Webster's New International:

The act of taking one's own life voluntary and intentionally; self-murder; specifically (Law), the felonious killing of one's self; the deliberate and intentional destruction of one's own life by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Now you can see why courts would want to define suicide in this way if it is to count as a felony (I mean, leaving aside the question of whether suicide ought to count as a crime at all). In the same vein, Black's Law Dictionary (4th ed.) defines the word as:

Self-destruction; the deliberate termination of one's existence, while in the possession and enjoyment of his mental faculties.

It's common enough for courts to give special or narrowed meanings to ordinary English words, which may be further restricted to particular purposes or contexts. In fact Black's goes on to note that:

The term "suicide," as used in insurance policies, has been held to mean death by one's own hand, irrespective of mental condition.

But for some reason, the field label "law" was left out of the definition when it was revised for the 1961 Third International, which defined suicide as:

1a. The act or an instance of taking one's life voluntarily or intentionally : SELF-DESTRUCTION 1b. The deliberate and intentional destruction of his own life by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Those two sub-definitions were later conflated into the single definition given in the Collegiate, with the result that a clause that was originally intended to apply only to the legal definition of the term was made part of its general meaning.

That sort of thing happens more often than you would expect: in the course of dictionary revision or abridgement, the archaic meanings of terms are carried over from one edition to the next, or specialized definitions are incorporated into the general definition with no indication that they apply only in certain contexts. Another reason -- not that we needed one -- why "the dictionary" doesn't always get things right.

Added 3/11: Joseph Ruby writes to note another reason why people have tried to narrow suicide to those of sound mind:

Christian churches do not permit a suicide a Christian burial. Coroners historically made every effort to find that persons who killed themselves were not of sound mind and therefore were not suicides, so that the families could have the solace of a decent funeral.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 9, 2007 05:19 PM