4 August 2009

To be or not to be: a question for individuals or the state?

The Bloggers’ Circle is a new and interesting group aimed at helping bloggers to reach a wider audience. We receive regular links to other members’ posts and are invited to comment on anything that inspires us.

My first effort was about how to improve energy conservation, and this is my second, prompted by a posting by Liam Murray on the current debate about assisted suicide.


As the number Brits opting to die at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland has increased, so too has the number of people with strong opinions on the subject, such as those in this recent posting on the subject.

One of the things that’s intrigued me about it all is that, for at least the first 40 years since the Suicide Act of 1961, no one took much notice of the second Clause of the Act, which is the one that deals with ‘any person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another’, and is the one at the centre of the current debate. The lack of interest in it until recently is hardly surprising given that, as far as I know, the same period saw no prosecutions at all being brought under the said Clause 2.

What seems to have been forgotten about the 1961 Act is that the Clause that’s now causing so much legal and political hullabaloo, was little more than a postscript to the main purpose of the Act, which was to decriminalize suicide as set out in its first clause:

"1. The rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit suicide is hereby abrogated. "

Clause 2 addressed a possible consequence of decriminalizing suicide and amounted to an ultra-cautious insurance policy to deter people from doing something that that hardly anyone ever did or had ever thought of doing in those days (i.e. helping someone else to commit suicide). And, as far as I know, no such cases were ever brought for at least 40 years after that – until, of course, people started looking for help in getting them to places like the Dignitas clinic.

The main aim of the Act was achieved by a crucial implication of its first Clause, namely to decriminalize attempted suicide

For hundreds of years before 1961, suicide had been a felony, which meant that attempted suicide was an attempted felony (i.e. a misdemeanor). But changing attitudes towards mental illness had increased the pressure on government to relieve suicide attempters and their families from the added misery of having to face prosecution, or the risk of prosecution, when what they really needed was treatment and support. And the easiest way do decriminalize attempted suicide was to decriminalize suicide.

If current debates reflect confusion arising from a subsidiary clause of the 1961 Suicide Act, it’s not really surprising - not only because definitions of suicide and attempted suicide are not as simple as they might seem, but also because there’s quite a long tradition of confusion and uncertainty, sometimes verging on skullduggery, in the history of English law on suicide.

I first became aware of this while doing my PhD research into how deaths get categorized as suicides and discovered that none of the experts I asked, including more than one coroner, could come up with a precise legal definition of suicide (see Discovering Suicide: Studies in the Social organization of Sudden Death, London: Macmillan Press; Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1978).

As for the peculiar question of why suicide became a felony in the first place – and why people who killed themselves were posthumously branded as felons – the most obvious, but not entirely accurate, answer is that it must have reflected religious, ethical or cultural norms of a bygone era.

Although it may have suited medieval monarchs to cite religion as a rationalization for criminalizing suicide, they had a much more materialistic motive in the form of a vested interest in the property of all convicted felons – because, once you’d been convicted of a felony, all your property passed to the crown.

So, to thwart the crown and keep their property in the family, some who were accused of a felony took the simple and irreversible step of killing themselves before their trial had taken place.

The crown’s answer to this wheeze was an equally simple win-win solution: by making suicide a felony, the monarch would still get his hands on the property, whether the accused killed themselves or failed to prove their innocence at a trial.

But this had the side effect of turning attempted suicide into an attempted felony, and so it remained until 1961.

I’ve always thought that the decriminalization of attempted suicide was a humane and worthy thing to do, just as I don’t believe that people should be punished for helping loved ones to end their lives.

The trouble is that revising the law looks set to be so long and drawn out that, by the time it eventually happens, it will be too late to benefit hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who will be left wrestling with their consciences in the meantime.

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