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Suicide hasn't been illegal for a long time, and that's a problem

I would bet that most people think that suicide is illegal in the United States, except in states like Oregon that have explicitly legalized physician-assisted suicide. If you get up on a bridge and are trying to commit suicide, you can be stopped. If someone comes upon you in private in the act of committing suicide, he's allowed to stop you. I would be astonished if anyone has ever been sued for, say, grabbing the gun out of the hand of a person about to commit suicide with it.

However, Wesley J. Smith pointed out to me long ago in comments on a post of his (I don't have the link but am going by memory) that suicide was decriminalized in the U.S. quite a while ago and is instead treated as a mental health matter. La Wik agrees with this and gives details.

As I understand it, it works roughly like this: If you try to commit suicide you are in many jurisdictions regarded prima facie as doing something that indicates mental instability, and this is why you can be stopped. Something along those lines. But it's a legal grey area, since it isn't technically illegal.

I hate to give people ideas, but why hasn't the Hemlock Society tried to get some sort of test case in which "Rationally Suicidal" Son civilly sues Dear Old Dad for tort and theft for grabbing RSS's helium thingy or pack of horded sleeping pills and making off with them?

Now it seems that the chickens may be coming home to roost. Whatever the rationale for decriminalizing suicide in the first place, the effect of it in Georgia seems to be that the State of Georgia cannot make a law against advertising assisted suicide. Oddly, according to this story, the judges held that Georgia lawmakers could have criminalized assisted suicide itself, and this might have given them some minimal purchase toward punishing advertisement for assisted suicide. More oddly still, as summarized, the court implied that they could punish advertisement for assisted suicide even in that case only if followed up by the act of actually assisting. Really? Try applying this to some other criminal activity. If I advertise hit-man services, can my advertisement be outlawed only if it's proven that I actually got customers from the advertisement and bumped somebody off? Seems implausible. But we'll set that aside for the moment. The core point here is that the Georgia Supremes said that the state lawmakers couldn't do anything to outlaw assisted suicide advertising under the current circumstances. In fact, according to the court, they are contravening the death-dealers' constitutional rights of free speech, unless they outlaw assisted suicide itself. Moreover, the judges worded part of their argument thus (emphasis added):

The State has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech rights.

Note that as this is worded, the "otherwise legal activity" is not assisted suicide but suicide. If the "otherwise legal activity" were assisted suicide, the "assist in" phrase would be redundant and confused. I suppose judges can say redundant and confused things, but this quote on its face appears to be saying that one reason Georgia lawmakers can't outlaw advertisement for assisted suicide is because suicide itself is legal in Georgia.

That the court then held out the option of outlawing assisted suicide is a little strange. After all, when we say that baking a chocolate cake is perfectly legal in America, we usually assume that that entails that no one can outlaw assisting in baking a chocolate cake. (The calorie Nazis haven't got that much power yet.) How can it be unconstitutional, on the grounds that suicide is legal, to outlaw advertising for assisted suicide but not be unconstitutional on the same grounds to outlaw assisting in suicide, especially if the assistance takes the form of sitting there and instructing the would-be suicide in how to put on the helium mask, which would be "speech"?

I suppose we pro-lifers should be pleased that outlawing assisted suicide itself hasn't been declared unconstitutional in Georgia and that Georgia retains that option and hopefully then can also do something to restrain the suicide tourism industry of Hemlock & Co. Georgia legislators should get on the stick and do just that.

But there is something convoluted and unconvincing about the court's reasoning as given. And it seems to me that the contortion arises in part from the legally ambiguous nature of suicide itself--not illegal, but you can outlaw helping people to do it. Not illegal, but you can stop people from doing it. Not illegal, but in some jurisdictions you can be involuntarily committed for trying to do it. The court seems to be blandly taking, up to a point, the naive understanding of "not illegal" to mean, "How can you possibly criminalize advertising assistance in this?" That they don't take the further step to, "How can you possibly criminalize assisting in this?" is something we may be grateful for, but the first step is disturbing.

I don't know how many pro-lifers know that suicide itself has been placed into this legally grey area long ago, but it may be time to reconsider any support we have given to that ambiguous situation, before the courts start applying the logic of "suicide is legal" more consistently.

Comments (25)

I actually see the court's point. The legislature ought to be prohibited from outlawing the advertisement of assisting in an objectively legal (non-criminal) activity. It would be like allowing them to raise withholding requirements without raising taxes during a budget crisis purely because the legislature doesn't have the stomach to formally raise taxes.

I have no problem with them outlawing suicide, I am just not sure of the point of implementing it other than making the punishment be mandatory time in a psychiatric ward for evaluation. I think if the legislature wants to outlaw advertising assisted suicide, they should be forced to clearly roll that under the murder statute first for the person who helps it along.

But if the legislature is prohibited from outlawing advertisement for assisting in suicide, on the grounds that suicide is legal, why isn't the legislature also prohibited from outlawing assisted suicide itself, by the same logic? Unless they first criminalize suicide per se?

The point of recriminalizing suicide, as I say in the main post, is several-fold:

1) It makes it legally logical in that case that other people are allowed to stop it, even if the person _isn't_ out of his mind. Otherwise, someone could argue that you (where "you" includes both public and private entities) can't stop anyone from doing it if you come upon him in the act. I'm surprised (as I say in the main post) that this point hasn't been pressed by Hemlock & co. in some case where a family member has stopped someone from committing suicide.

2) It makes it perfectly legally logical in that case to outlaw assisting in it or, for that matter, advertising assisting in it. Otherwise, an argument could be made that since the primary activity (the suicide) isn't illegal, the legislature can't outlaw assisted suicide either.

But if the legislature is prohibited from outlawing advertisement for assisting in suicide, on the grounds that suicide is legal, why isn't the legislature also prohibited from outlawing assisted suicide itself, by the same logic?

I think the court would be correct in ruling against them on assisted suicide as well if suicide itself isn't illegal. The difference between the legal act and the act to be outlawed should be such that it is almost a different kind of act, rather just a bit different. It would be like saying you can legally molest your kids, but only if you don't record it. That'd be completely capricious and arbitrary.

QED You presumably see the point, then, in recriminalizing suicide.

Yes. As I said, I see no inherent problem with doing so. Merely in the implementation of it. I don't think putting someone who is suicidal in prison is likely to help them. Other remedies would have to be used. In general, putting a suicidal person in prison is only likely to make them more willing to commit the act.

Sure, of course. It would be easy enough, I would think, to set up the law so that the "penalty" was mandatory suicide prevention counseling for x number of months and/or some kind of oversight, meetings or something, to make sure that you were not a danger to yourself or others, perhaps to separate you from someone who was encouraging the suicide, such as a previous caregiver. Heck, many criminals who have harmed other people get sentenced to community service, so it should be easy enough to write a law that mandated something suitably constructive for an unsuccessful suicide. But merely the fact of making it criminal would seem to me to make the entire set-up more logical. Since it's obviously quite important that we be able to outlaw assisted suicide, this seems like an important loophole to re-close.

I do think there should be a policy that says that if the state wastes its resources on you three times and you aren't bona fide insane or won't stay on your meds (I have no problem with the state buying them here), the state should simply put you out of society's misery with a firing squad or public hanging. That might cause at least the emo kids to rediscover some meaning in life besides tacky pseudo-goth attire and middle class self-loathing ;)

** I was being mostly tongue-in-cheek there. Mostly.

I don't have any idea how can they make suicidal illegal.
How bout the one who commits it already died, is he still going to be fine by the law. Well, I don't really have an idea.

Venice from scie à chantourner Delta 

I know this is a little old, but it is so full of misconceptions that it deserves at least a comment.

First, whether or not an act is criminal is irrelevant to the question of whether someone may be liable for interfering with it. Accidentally stepping in front of an oncoming bus is not criminal. It is stupid, and if someone restrained you from doing it it would not be an assault in most jurisdictions. This is because there are so-called Good Samaritan laws that expressly prohibit tort recoveries and criminal penalties against people who reasonably try to prevent harm to another. If you endeavor to shoot yourself in the brain and someone stops you from doing it, that is not actionable not because there is ambiguity as to whether it is criminal to shoot yourself in the brain (there is none: it is not,) but because the law expressly permits folks to use best efforts to rescue you from harm (no matter the source).

Second, suicide clearly does have a mental health component. So while it may be legal, the desire to do it may still signal a mental health issue that should be addressed. Drinking alcohol is also legal, even to excess. Ditto smoking. And eating rich foods. But all of them have been shown to be harmful, and an uncontrollable compulsion to engage in harmful behavior probably signals an issue that should be addressed. No surprise that behaviors that indicate the potential to be a harm to self or others may be grounds for involuntary commitment.

Third, as to the Georgia law, the question is what harm does advertising do. The government's attorney couldn't come up with any. Regulation of speech is more difficult for a government in the US than regulation of activity - generally speaking, it must be justified by a compelling government purpose. Here, it couldn't be. Now if the government could demonstrate that advertisement actually increased the number of suicides, that may have been enough. Restrictions on advertising for otherwise legal activities have been repeatedly upheld - again, look at smoking and drinking. And requiring that advertisements be truthful has also been repeatedly upheld, so if the preferred method of the murder society are not actually painless or something they could not so claim.

But Matt, perhaps you should then argue with the court. Notice that it was _the court_ that made a point of saying that the suicide _itself_ is an "otherwise legal activity" and, please note, apparently used that as an argument against the constitutionality of banning advertising for assistance in doing it.

As for your example concerning Good Samaritan laws, I really think that you reckon without the probable impact on Good Samaritan laws of *making explicit* the *full legality in every sense of the word* of suicide. For example: In England a woman deliberately drank some kind of poison--I believe it was car antifreeze. She had on hand a statement that she didn't want to be assisted, that she had drunk the poison deliberately. When she arrived at the hospital the doctors declined to pump her stomach on the grounds that she had a right to commit suicide and that they could not interfere!

When you talk about Good Samaritan laws, you are classifying together cases where a person is about to harm himself accidentally and is about to do so deliberately.

What we are seeing as the pro-suicide movement gets up steam is that all those different strands are being teased out: The accidental from the deliberate, the deliberate suicide that is messy and could cause harm to others (e.g., suicide by stepping in front of an on-coming truck) from the "neat" and "victimless" suicide, and so forth. The push is to make sure that no one can interfere and that anyone can help in the deliberate, victimless, and non-messy.

Once that is in place, I expect the protections of Good Samaritan laws to be _expressly withheld_ from those who intervene in the deliberate and non-messy. I'm quite certain that that is the goal.

Let me also add that "may have a mental health component" just isn't good enough. The initial push is to make sure you cannot be stopped and can be assisted in committing so-called "rational suicide." Now, down the line, as we see now in Belgium, there will be no actual block to people with mental health problems or even dementia ordering their own deaths, or even ordering them ahead of time. But initially the idea is that this is supposed to be for people who are *not* mentally ill. Hence, if our only legal fig leaf in stopping people, and letting friends stop people, from committing suicide is that they are probably mentally ill, the Hemlock-ites are already way ahead of us on that one and are prepared to block it at the pass.

And I do believe that some momentum--not all that is needed--but some momentum in the legal sphere will be given to this entire movement by the fact that *deliberately* harming yourself has been decriminalized. Moreover, the Georgia court's reasoning supports my contention here.

Also, please: We are not looking for "regulation" of Hemlock advertisements for assisted suicide. It ought to be possible to ban them altogether. Not just to require that there be some kind of guy's voice muttering a lot of nearly inaudible caveats at the end. Not just that there be some statement that these services won't be given to those under 18. Not just some kind of "truth in advertising" requirement regarding the nitty-gritty details of what it's like to die using a Hemlock service pack! Indeed, such regulations would put an aura of respectability around the entire thing that should not be there: "See, this isn't _irresponsible_, wildcat assisted suicide advertising. It's _regulated_ assisted suicide advertising."

This brings us to the separate illogic of the court's statement that *even if* the legislature constitutionally outlawed assisted suicide they couldn't outlaw advertising for it unless it led to actually doing it. Seriously? See my example of hit-man services. Try going out and putting an ad in the paper that says, "Hate your wife? Call me. I'll bump her off for you."

Moreover, your point concerning "action" and "speech" does not address my point in the main post that the assistance in question can to a large extent be called speech, because it is speech: Telling people how to obtain and use a combination of a plastic bag and a helium tank, for example. So if it's unconstitutional to outlaw assisted suicide speech, it's going to get pretty difficult to outlaw assisted suicide.

Another point: It is pretty obvious that returning to the status quo ante in which suicide was per se illegal would be one way to justify constitutionally criminalizing advertisements for assistance in suicide. This via the principle that speech that directly incites the commission of a crime is not constitutionally protected. That's why I can't post, "Hey, let's all go burn down Matt's house. He lives at ____. See ya there!" and plead 1st amendment protection if I get in trouble. Similarly, if killing yourself with a helium tank or jumping off a bridge were actually illegal, an advertisement saying, "Need help getting to the nearest low-parapet bridge? We can help" or "Need assistance in committing suicide painlessly? Contact us" would be prima facie constitutionally prosecutable as direct incitement without even the need for any additional laws.\

Hence, again, the fact that suicide is a legal act *is legally relevant* to whether advertising for assistance can be prohibited, since it blocks one quite obvious route to prosecuting such advertisements.

I think that if the state can end my life (or risk my life, which if I die is the same thing), - against my will - to save my unborn child, then the state has already declared my life to be of no value, and I can end it with no legal ramifications. You can't have it both ways.

You can't have it both ways.

We declare people's lives of no value when we make every effort to save their children?

And therefore, people should be allowed to kill themselves, because we're trying to stop as many people as possible from dying?

I don't even really have anything to add. That's just nonsensical.

Let make suicide illegal...the penalty shall be death.

No one here really understands that making suicide illegal would have ZERO deterrent effect.

It would have a deterrent effect on other people's helping, advertising to help, or inciting, because they could then suffer penalties for doing so, and judges couldn't declare such penalties unconstitutional on the grounds that the helper was assisting in or inciting a legal act. You are the one who doesn't understand. Since in many cases people would not carry out the deed if not incited or helped to do it, this would help to prevent suicides. Moreover, aside from deterrence, if suicide were illegal there would be no danger of what I very much fear will happen: Namely, the danger that Good Samaritans who forcibly stop a suicide in the act will get in trouble. I explained that above, too.

In a follow-up post I point out that there was a sick individual who made fake "suicide pacts" with people on-line and got them to livestream their suicides to him because he liked to watch people die. His conviction has been overturned on "first amendment" grounds because he was allegedly exercising his "freedom of speech" in inducing these people to commit suicide. There is at least some reason to believe that they would still be alive if he had not encouraged them, yet he is getting zero penalty for doing so. He could just go out and do it again. Once again, the judges reasoned that his conviction must be overturned because he was inciting an act (suicide) that is not illegal.

Ideas have consequences. So does the decriminalizing of suicide.

Silly Lydia: you didn't expect a drive-by troll to actually read the post, did you?

I can understand why convincing people to commit suicide should be illegal, but if you put people who attempt and fail at suicide in jail, they're definitely going to find a way to kill themselves in there; which would not only make such a law counterproductive, but immoral.

The penalty could be written into law as being required to undergo counseling, cooperate with home visits from a trained social worker, and the like, with the further penalty if the person will not cooperate or is an imminent danger to himself of his being committed. It has always been, and still is, possible to commit people involuntarily to a mental institution if they are a present threat to themselves or others. That is presently legally the case. All that I am suggesting is that we once again put the mental health structure that presently obtains into the context of criminal law so that no one can say that suicide is "not illegal" and argue from there that it also should not be illegal to assist it. That further argument is actually quite plausible, when one thinks about it. How can it be that doing x is perfectly legal but that it is illegal for anyone to help me do it? Pro-suicide activists were always bound to pick up on this oddity and use it, and they are doing so. The problem is that we have placed suicide into a legal grey zone that is, in my opinion, legally incoherent. It's not illegal, but you can be forcibly stopped from doing it?? That makes no sense.

Hi Lydia, I see your point but what about in my scenario. I was hospitalized for attempted suicide and they kept me in a psychiatric ward for a few days. I had a few nurses watching over me to simply talk about how I feel. They were all trained obviously but they didn't help me at all because the reason why I attempted suicide was not addressed and solved.

Also with your idea lets say try 1 gets me a week of counseling. Try two would get me a month, maybe try three will get me a year and after the fourth what's next? Lifetime or solitary confinement? Do you want to pay for all that? People are already going crazy about paying for education for crying out loud. If you are pro-life you should focus on how to help others by getting to the root of their reasons for suicide. People don't wake up one day and just think, "Oh, I'll go kill myself today."

Right now we have to deal with those issues already: What _do_ we do with a person who tries to commit suicide multiple times or a person who remains a "danger to himself." Such a person can be committed indefinitely. These sheerly practical issues are with us today. It doesn't make them go away to make the matter non-criminal. We already have to decide "who pays" for the costs of taking care of somebody who is under psychiatric restraint.

What I am recommending merely is a return to the time where the attempt to commit suicide is considered in law to be a crime, but where the _treatment_ of it is, as now, cared for in terms of mental health. That could even be written into the law. Thus the way that the suicidal person is cared for would not essentially change. What would however change would be this: Anyone who _assisted_ in suicide or a suicide attempt would be assisting in a crime. And _that_ person could be dealt with in a completely different fashion. It could be a jailable offense. Most importantly, no judge could come along later and say, "Hey, this is assisting in something that isn't a crime, so how can assisting be a crime?" It would block that legal argument.

Actually, you can legally advertise services as a hitman. That's why police have to set up a sting where money changes hands to make an arrest. Same with drug dealing, prostitution, ect. Advertising illegal acts is not in and of itself illegal.

The judge doesn't seem to think it's protected under the First Amendment, either. (As it shouldn't be.) So whether it's illegal or not could easily depend upon the venue and jurisdiction and the laws thereof.

Criminal solicitation commonly involves crimes such as prostitution and drug dealing, though politicians have been convicted for solicitation of a bribe. The crime of solicitation is completed if one person intentionally entices, advises, incites, orders, or otherwise encourages another to commit a crime. The crime solicited need not actually be committed for solicitation to occur.


A person is guilty of solicitation to commit a crime if, with the purpose of promoting or facilitating its commission, he commands, encourages or requests another person to engage in specific conduct which would constitute such crime or an attempt to commit such crime or which would establish his complicity in its commission or attempted commission. It is immaterial that the actor fails to communicate with the person he solicits to commit a crime if his conduct was designed to effect such a communication.


I think you need to get some better legal advice. That took me about five minutes' googling.

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