Where Is Attempting Suicide Illegal?

Where is attempting suicide illegal? - graphic of hands holding cell bars

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.

How delightful.

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.

Western countries

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?

Other countries

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?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

40 thoughts on “Where Is Attempting Suicide Illegal?”

  1. I suspect, as you say, that a lot of these laws stay because it’s the status quo and no one cares enough to change it.

    The articles quoted seem to be very Western-centric, but most of the countries that still criminalise suicide are not Western. It would be interesting to know how much is a holdover from colonialism and how much is post-colonial.

  2. It’s interesting that in the Bahamas, if someone attempts suicide, it is only a misdemeanor, but if someone aids & abets that attempt, it’s life in prison. All of this is quite baffling.

  3. Interesting article, Ashley. This especially hit home for me given my friend’s recent passing. Also interesting to know the roots of the Christian/Catholic belief that suicide is a sin. I’m guessing that historical legacy still haunts many westernized cultures today, including the U.S.

    1. Yeah, it was interesting reading your post given the timing. It’s unfortunate that the Church deems suicide is a sin, but yet it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of support for mental illness, at least in general terms, to prevent things getting to the point where someone reaches the point of being suicidal.

      1. I agree. I don’t take offense to slams on the Church, either. Mental health care isn’t that great in America. I’ve been “in the system” since I was a teenager, and I’ve been in a lot of crappy psych wards and rehabs over the years. If anything, this pandemic may actually be a wake-up call on mental health, given some of the articles I’ve seen in U.S. media.

          1. I’m not a Catholic (anymore) and I don’t know much about Aquinas. But even if suicide were a sin, his assessment that it is “unrepentable” seems to be based on that one, being dead, cannot repent. A more holistic view is that Christ died for all, for all of one’s sins, whether one was even aware of them or not. A sin doesn’t have to be “repentable” in order to be “forgivable.”

            This also reflects a view that any time one “misses the mark” (literal definition of “sin” in N.T. Greek), one is sinning. So any human imperfection is a reflection of our sin nature, whether one consciously sinned or not.

            So even is suicide is a “sin” (by this view, anyway) it is no more or no less forgivable than any other sin for which Christ died.

  4. “The St. Thomas Aquinas clusterfuck” is a phrase that just generally made me happy to read as someone whose “family” has historically had their trauma, mental and physical health issues alike compounded by a weird thread of Catholic self-recrimination in some of the earlier generations. What a great way of summing up the twisted role that religion and politics alike have played in the history of stigma.

  5. Interesting questions. My great aunt, a Catholic nun, was told that her father had committed suicide (he hadn’t), and it seems to have shaped her entire life.

          1. I’ve got a post on it coming next week, so I’ll just summarise: she was misinformed because he was murdered. The result of his murder was that all of his kids ended up in orphanages and becoming Catholics.

            1. I see that you found the post about my gr. gr. Grandfather and my great Aunt: I think I got a bit off track while writing it, so I hope it still pertains to what we were initially talking about?

  6. The sad part is that there is no ‘winning’, when you ‘succeed’ then there is no one left to punish and when the person stays alive, you punish them by law?
    That will help a great deal. 🙄
    I guess de Aquino had a whole other set of problems than mental health to come up with something like that.

    Some laws are so outdated and need to be translated into anno 2020. We know so much more now. But the justice system is also not a fast one. Without anyone pointing this out, it will remain the same.

    1. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I’ve heard there are all kinds of strange laws on the books that no one has ever gotten around to changing.

  7. I think the insanity defense was put in to help people. Back then, it was probably pretty easy to be declared insane, and then you’d be cleared of a crime and possibly get whatever little help was available. But the religious purists wouldn’t be upset because the premise of not taking a life (when you were in sound mind) still was being honored. I think it’s good to discourage ppl up to a point, especially now when they possibly could be helped. But if someone really is ready to go… their choice imo

  8. I might add here thinkers like Hegel though suicide is not justified at all. It is in the Philosophy of Right but I forgot the argumentation, didn’t read it in a while. I bet it even has more contemporary history. I think we should ask ourselves why did something deemed as sin remained prohibited by law in secular societies. Creepy.

    1. I found this quote from The Philosophy of Right:
      “But the point is, Have I any right to kill myself? The answer is that I, as this individual am not lord over my own life, since the comprehensive totality of one’s activity, the life, falls within the direct and present personality. To speak of the right of a person over his life is a contradiction, since it implies a right of a person over himself.”

      And I agree, it’s crazy that religion is so intertwined with secular society.

      1. Oh right, it is still the sphere of Abstract right and it is about not having ownership of ourselves in the same way we own objects. That is a step forward in freedom for Hegel with no intent to torment people with mental ill health. But there will always be that someone who will take his account of Prussian state seriously and as a foundation for policies. The most literal way. I am very much pro reading canonical philosophy but also very much against simplification.

          1. Actually, it is a part of his account against slavery and forced labor. Take it out of context and see what you get!

  9. I agree, the legislation in the Bahamas needs to change regarding suicide. We have a lot of British laws that have been established during colonialism that weren’t changed when we became independent. But, on the bright side, that law is not practised. Suicide is regarded as a medical emergency. You’re not arrested or charged. You’re referred to a psychiatrist.

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