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Criminal Law and Suicide, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 970

Research Paper

Since the dawn of civilization, various attempts have been made to prevent people from committing suicide or the taking of one’s own life. In ancient times, suicide was not viewed as a taboo act, nor was it illegal to end one’s life by choice. In ancient Egypt, suicide “was not a violation of either the spiritual or legal code” and was considered as a justifiable way to die if a person was facing a terminal illness with much pain and suffering (The History of Suicide, 2011). Perhaps the most famous historical person to openly debate whether suicide was justified or morally wrong was the Greek philosopher Socrates who “believed that human beings were the property of the Gods and did not have the right to take away something that did not belong to them,” being their own lives. However, after his famous trial, Socrates was forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock (The History of Suicide, 2011).

From a Christian viewpoint, suicide has always been condemned by the church. In the fourth century C.E., the famous religious leader and philosopher St. Augustine “publicly denounced suicide as a sin” which led to the Council of Guadix to publicly condemn all those who had chosen (or were about to choose) suicide or self-death (The History of Suicide, 2011). But with the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, suicide became equated with mental and/or emotional distress which “helped pave the way for changes in civil, criminal and religious laws concerning suicide.” By the 20th century, numerous countries in Europe “began to abolish laws that made suicide a crime” and in 1983, the Roman Catholic Church “reversed canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had died by their own hand” (The History of Suicide, 2011).

In today’s world, the issue of suicide has taken on new dimensions, especially related to whether taking one’s own life is a criminal act. According to Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, it was only recently that suicide was considered as an illegal act in the United States and Great Britain, a somewhat “clear reflection of the prevailing Christian belief that suicide is a gravely immoral act” (2011). Apparently, the main reason for changing the laws regarding suicide is that such laws “exposed to prosecution those who unsuccessfully attempted suicide,” not to mention the reluctance of state and federal prosecutors to place someone on trial for attempted suicide. Mirus also relates that in January of 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the “respect for private life found in the European Convention of Human Rights includes the right of individuals to choose freely to commit suicide;” however, the court also decided that countries within Europe “are not obligated to provide individuals with the means to commit suicide” (2011), an obvious reference to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

According to most sources, suicide has never officially been illegal in the United States as a criminal offense that warrants federal prosecution. However, in the early 1960’s, suicide was considered as a crime in six U.S. states–North and South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma. In Great Britain, suicide was considered as a misdemeanor crime against society until 1961; however, this only applied to self-death and had nothing to do with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Thus, in today’s Great Britain and the United States, individuals “can still be prosecuted for helping someone kill himself,” whether through the assistance of a doctor (such as providing some type of lethal drug) or a loved one or friend that provides the means to kill oneself (Adams, 2004).

Therefore, the only true criminality associated with suicide is related to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The most famous case is that of Dr. Jack Kevorkian who was prosecuted for physician-assisted suicide in the state of Michigan which currently prohibits assisted suicide as a homicide law which was passed in 1998 (Legal Status of Assisted Suicide, 2013). In other U.S. states, assisted suicide and/or euthanasia is either not mentioned in the law codes, is totally illegal, or is totally legal. For example, in the state of Alaska, assisted suicide is considered as a serious crime and an individual that provides assistance can be prosecuted for manslaughter; the same holds true for the states of Arizona, Colorado, and Arkansas where the laws declares that “It is unlawful for any
physician or health care provider to commit the offense of physician-assisted suicide by prescribing any drug, compound, or substance to a patient with the express purpose of assisting the patient” to end his/her life prematurely, even if the patient is suffering from severe pain and discomfort (Assisted Suicide Laws, 2012).

In the state of California, the law is somewhat vague–“Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of
a felony” or what is known as a “class C” felony which the state of Iowa describes as intentionally or knowingly assisting, soliciting, or inciting another individual to commit or attempt to commit suicide (Assisted Suicide Laws, 2012). In contrast to these states, Nevada does not currently have a law that prohibits assisted suicide; and in Oregon and Washington State, the “Death With Dignity” acts “transformed the crime of assisted suicide into a medical treatment if the assistance is provided by a physician” (Assisted Suicide Laws, 2012). Thus, as of 2013, self-inflicted suicide is not considered as a criminal act anywhere in the U.S. but laws against assisted suicide can be found in the law books of almost every U.S. state.

References

Adams, C. (2004). Is suicide against the law? Retrieved from http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2501/is-suicide-against-the-law

Assisted suicide laws in the United States. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.patientsrightscouncil.org/site/assisted-suicide-state-laws

Legal status of assisted suicide/euthanasia in the United States. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.nightingalealliance.org/pdf/state_grid.pdf

Mirus, J. (2011). The rights and laws of suicide. Retrieved from http://www. catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=762

The history of suicide. (2011). Retrieved from http://crouchfoundation.org/history-of- suicide.html

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