The question, is it illegal to commit suicide?, is becoming a topic of increasing interest, particularly as the baby-boomer generation moves into their twilight years and assisted suicide moves toward the forefront of social issues. But, the morality of suicide is different than the question: is suicide illegal?
Rarely do people take the middle ground on the subject of suicide. Similar to capital punishment, the issue of suicide — assisted or otherwise — is polarizing. Most of us believe suicide is either a personal decision that should be left up to individuals or that suicide is an act so egregious that the state simply cannot permit it in any form.
The simple answer to the question of whether suicide is illegal or not is two part. Yes, suicide is illegal in some instances while not in others. To add even more complexity to the question posed, even in instances when suicide is illegal, there are often no legal ramifications to attempting suicide.
In fact, there is only one instance where suicide is a felony in the United States: assisted suicide. But, even then, it is not the person wanting to die that is prosecuted, it is the person assisting the person wanting to commit suicide.
In order to understand the legality — or illegality — of suicide, suicide must be divided into unassisted and assisted suicide. Once separated from assisted suicide, unassisted suicide must then be divided between those states where it is legal and those where it is illegal. Ironically however, the consequences of unassisted suicide are often the same in both states where it is against the law and those where it is not: hospitalization in a mental institution.
Legal ramifications rarely enter the picture with respect to suicide attempts.
Currently, in the strictest of terms, the answer to the question is attempted suicide illegal? is “no.” In the past, it was illegal in many states of the Union to attempt or commit suicide. As late as the 1980s, according to MentalHealthDaily.com, it was a felony to attempt suicide in 30 of the 50 states. However, rarely was a person who attempted suicide prosecuted legally. In most cases, the person was placed in a mental health ward and their behavior was managed with strict supervision.
Today there is no state in which it is illegal to attempt suicide with the exception of those instances where another life is put in danger by the attempt.
Attempted Suicide Versus Attempted Murder
In 2012, for the first time in its almost 200 year history, Indiana charged someone who attempted suicide with a felony. The Guardian reported that Bei Bei Shuai took rat poison in an effort to end her life. While she did not die, the poison caused the death of her unborn baby. Bei Bei Shuai was prosecuted for homicide. She was not prosecuted for what she attempted to do to herself, but what her decision did to an unborn baby.
Less of a suicide issue and more of an issue of child endangerment, according to the Guardian more and more women are being charged with murder and attempted murder for things like suicide attempts while pregnant, drug use, alcohol abuse and other behavior that is reckless and endangers an unborn child. But again, these cases are less about suicide and endangering one´s person than they are about protecting individuals that cannot protect themselves from the consequences of another person´s decisions.
So, even in cases where the question, is it illegal to attempt suicide? is “yes,” it is really “no.” No state in the United States will take punitive measures against a person that attempts suicide and fails unless the suicide attempt endangers another person.
With respect to the spectrum of decisive issues, assisted suicide is among the most dividing. While attempting to commit suicide is not illegal, helping someone with suicide is illegal in every state except four. Currently, there are only four states that permit assisted suicide. In a November 2014 Time Magazine article, Emily Barone reported that three states have passed legislation permitting doctors to write prescriptions for lethal doses of medication upon a patient´s request. Those states are Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.
In 2014, New Mexico determined that residents have a constitutional right to obtain aid in dying. While the State´s Attorney General is appealing the decision, the ramifications of the legislation are different than all other assisted suicide legislation of the past because it does not require assistance from a doctor.
Montana is also a unique state in that it does not expressly consent to assisted suicide, but it does have case precedent that has made it legal for doctors to assist patients with suicide. In other words, while it is not expressly legal for doctors to assist patients with suicide, doctors will not be prosecuted for doing so.
In all other states, while it is not illegal to commit suicide, it is a felony to assist someone in their death.
Morality of Suicide
The reason that suicide is such a decisive issue is because the consequences of suicide not only affect the attempts or commits suicide, but also their loved ones, family and friends. While it may be understandable why a person who is dying of a terminal illness may want to commit suicide and their family and friends may agree that the pain and suffering the terminally ill person is enduring justifies the act of suicide, cases where the person that commits suicide is healthy are much more difficult to come to grips with.
With the exception of the most extreme circumstances — the potential for torture and a prolonged death in times of war, for example, — there are few instances when the suicide of a healthy person can be justified to all but the most liberal of family and friends. When a son or daughter abandons their mother, father, siblings and friends, the consequences are irreversible. When a mother or father leaves children behind following suicide, a permanent mark is left on the lives of those left living.
While the causes of suicide vary, generally there are only two reasons a person of sound body kills themselves. External factors like bankruptcy or illicit debt, an impending prison sentence, the death of a loved one and divorce have all been contributing factors to suicide. In addition there have been countless other factors that lead to suicide.
But, suicide has rarely — if ever — been the solution to a healthy individual´s problems and the devastation left behind is generally far worse than the external factors that lead to the suicide. Children are orphaned, spouses are widowed, fathers and mothers lose children and friends are left helpless and without answers following a suicide.
As such, most people neither condone suicide except in the most extreme cases nor find it easy to forgive those who make such a decision.
Depression Based Suicide
While it is true that external factors often contribute to depression, sometimes depression is not a symptom of something external, but of a chemical imbalance. Chemical imbalance based depression is often more difficult to deal with because a person cannot change their behavior or make changes in their lives to combat the depression. Removing a negative external stimuli does not work.
In cases of chemical-imbalance depression based suicides, the family and friends of the person that takes their life are left with even more questions than those who can say, “he was going to go to prison for the rest of his life and decided that was not for him,” or something of the likes. While a person cannot help but be depressed when that depression is based on a chemical-imbalance, that does not make it easier for the people left behind to forgive a person for committing suicide.
In fact, often times a person´s chemical imbalance is never diagnosed, so those left behind are left feeling abandoned, without answers and angry. Suicide with no apparent reason is extremely difficult for family and friends to forgive. Even the suicide of those who are known to be chronically depressed is difficult to move past.
Illegal Versus Immoral
While it is no longer illegal to commit suicide, the morality of suicide is just as questionable as ever. The ultimate easy way out, only under the most dire of situations is suicide justifiable. Most cases of suicide are simply a matter of someone not having the ability to look beyond the immediate future or consider the devastation left in the wake of a loved one´s suicide.
Yes, life can be incredibly difficult and unfair and people can do heinous things to one another, but those people that make the mistake of thinking that their family and friends will be better off without them are mistaken.
A suicide is never forgotten by those close to the person who commits the act and forgiveness for doing so is never a certainty.
Almost everything in life is forgivable. Sometimes suicide is not.