13
Suicide and Self-Starvation

Terence M. O'Keeffe

A puzzle has been presented in the recent past in Northern Ireland: what is the correct description of the person who dies as a result of a hunger-strike? For many the simple answer is that such a person commits suicide, in that his is surely a case of "self-inflicted death." Where then is the puzzle? It is that a number of people do not see such deaths as suicides. I am not here referring to political propagandists or paramilitaries, for whom the correct description of such deaths is "murder by Mrs. Thatcher" or "killed by British intransigence" (to quote advertisements in the Belfast nationalist press at the time of Bobby Sands's death). I am rather thinking of some theologians who, despite being opposed to the hunger-strike and indeed publicly condemning the whole campaign, refused to describe what the hunger-strikers did as suicide.

Trying to understand the reasoning involved in this judgment will force us to clarify our notion of what is to count as suicide, the role of the intention of the person acting in such a way as to bring about his own death, and through this notion, something about the principle of "double effect" which seems to be invoked by theologians in cases like this. The following reflections however exclude any consideration of the politics of hunger-striking in Northern Ireland, which would require a very different treatment. (Whether it will be possible to exclude entirely any political judgment from a description of the deaths of hunger-strikers will perhaps be clearer by the end of the discussion.)

I have pointed out that there are some people who wish to deny the suicide verdict on the deaths of hunger-strikers. It is clear why they wish to do so. They hold the view that suicide or self-killing is always an extremely grave sin, and if this were the correct description of the hunger-striker, many difficulties would be

____________________
From Philosophy 56 ( 1981): 349-63. Copyright © Royal Institute of Philosophy. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

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