I recently wrote about whether the wording “committed suicide” was likely to be an effective target for anti-stigma messaging. A commenter mentioned that in their home country, suicide was a crime up until quite recently. That got me curious, so I did some digging to find out where attempting suicide is illegal to this day.
Why suicide first became illegal
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives some background on how suicide came to be illegal in the first place. The earliest clear indications of the development of these views came in the 5th century CE, when St. Augustine wrote that suicide violated the biblical fifth commandment that “thou shalt not kill.” Thus, he declared, it was an unrepentable sin.
This belief really started to get widespread traction with St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. He argued that suicide nullified a person’s relationship with God by violating His dominion over the person’s life. In Medieval times, the corpses of those who suicided were desecrated and weren’t permitted a Christian burial, and their property was confiscated. This was based in both law and common practice.
Aquinas’ beliefs eventually made their way into English common law. A BBC article says that at that time, “For a death to be declared a ‘Felo de se’, Latin for ‘felon of himself’, an old legal term for suicide, it had to be proved the person was sane.” It was only if the person was proven to be sane that they were denied a Christian burial. Whatever that ended up looking like in practice, the idea that mentally-ill-person-suicide would not have been a felony is quite interesting.
Wikipedia, citing what appear to be high quality sources, described this punishment for suicide in a 1670 ordinance by King Louis XIV of France:
… the dead person’s body was drawn through the streets, face down, and then hung or thrown on a garbage heap. Additionally, all of the person’s property was confiscated.
With Great Britain’s prolific colonization, the influence of Aquinas’ beliefs became even more widespread after the Middle Ages.
This was the first I’d ever read about the origins of suicide stigma. The lack of linkage to mental illness is actually rather fascinating. It’s also interesting how problematic quirks of English common law were able to get flung far and wide.
The UK decriminalized attempting suicide in 1961, and Canada followed in 1972.
It’s difficult to find a clear date for the U.S., presumably because it falls under state rather than federal law. According to a 1914 article in the Virginia Law Review, attempting suicide was a felony in New York, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Maryland was the last state to finally clear out straggler colonial legislation around suicide. In 2019, the state passed House Bill 77 repealing the piece of law that criminalized attempted suicide. According to the Washington Post, this law dated back to Maryland’s time as a British colony.
Suicide Laws in India
Attempting suicide was illegal in India for over 150 years under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. The associated punishment was up to one year in prison. This was introduced under British rule in 1860.
An article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry explains that, in 2017, parliament passed the Mental Healthcare Act. Section 115 of this Act included the statement that “Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the IPC, any person who attempts to die by suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.”
While it’s positive that India has done something, the penal code section that made attempting suicide wasn’t repealed; it was simply shuffled off to the side with a notwithstanding clause. And “unless proved otherwise”? Is that really a door that needs to be left open?
A review in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry of suicide laws around the globe found that, in 2015, 25 out of 192 independent countries and states have laws against attempted suicide. An additional 20 countries follow Sharia law, under which suicide attempts can be punished, although suicide isn’t mentioned explicitly.
Actual punishment doesn’t occur in most countries where attempting suicide is illegal. In some countries, such as Singapore, common practice is to not prosecute the first instance, but then treat subsequent attempts differently. Some states, such as Somaliland, do regularly jail suicide attempters.
The penal code of the Bahamas. Section 294 states that:
Whoever attempts to commit suicide is guilty of a misdemeanour, and whoever abets the commission of suicide by any person shall, whether or not the suicide be actually committed, be liable to imprisonment for life.
An article in the African Journal of Criminology & Justice Studies noted that many of the countries where suicide remains illegal are former British colonies (yeah thanks, Aquinas!). Among nine African countries where suicide is illegal, there’s variable enforcement. Ghana was cited as an example of a country that regularly enforces laws against suicide, with attempters potentially receiving jail time, a heavy fine, or a combination of both.
The Wikipedia article on suicide legislation has charts with data for countries worldwide. For quite a few countries, the status is unknown. I’m not sure how accurate their list is, but it says that suicide is illegal in the following countries:
- Africa: Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda
- Americas: Bahamas, Guyana
- Asia: Bangladesh, Brunei, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Syria, U.A.E., Yemen
- Europe: Cyprus, Georgia
- Oceania: Papua New Guinea
What this means
There aren’t that many countries still stuck in the dark ages, but still, it’s far too many. I’d be curious to know if these laws remain on the books because of actual preference, or because it’s status quo and no one talks about mental illness and/or suicide enough to get any wheels in motion for change. Regardless of how much there is of the former, I’m guessing there’s a great deal of the latter.
In terms of where to go from here, I’m not sure. I don’t think the countries where we’re privileged enough to be talking about language around suicide overlap with the countries where this remains a legal issue. No country is going to change these laws because of what people from other countries are blathering on about. I don’t see this as a subject where government to government pressure is going to happen; there’s so much shit going down in the world for this to make it onto the intergovernmental stage.
Perhaps we can hope that creating dialogue online will help to empower potential activists in these countries to push for change. And if Maryland didn’t get its shit together until 2019, we can expect that it’ll take a while in other countries too.
What are your thoughts on how we can move past the St. Thomas Aquinas disaster?
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page covers a variety of topics related to suicide, including getting help and safety planning, from the perspective of someone who’s been there.