Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 1: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]

The Interplay between the Right to Life (Death) and the Criminalization of Suicide: A Contemporary Review


The number of people who take their own lives has been gradually climbing over the past several years. Additionally, the number of people who die by suicide each year is 25 times larger than those who die by suicide attempts each year. The Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA), 2017, was passed into law by the Indian government around the end of the year 2018, possibly as an attempt to help the situation surrounding mental health. The Act, notablySection 115 of the act, removed the stigma associated with suicidal ideation and attempts, which reduced the stigma and the extended mental anguish experienced by a patient who survives a suicide attempt.


There were potential legal repercussions due to this Act given that it contradicts Sections 109, 116, 306, and 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Those individuals who have attempted suicide would have become eligible to receive free mental healthcare, treatment, and rehabilitation due to this piece of legislation.


Therefore, the end outcome places a significant financial strain on the government. Refreshing one’s knowledge of mental illness and related skills is required for medical professionals, mental health professionals, and general and mental health institutions engaged in the treatment of persons who have attempted suicide to comply with the conditions of the act. In compliance with the criteria of the Mental Health Care Act of 2017, massive public education campaigns were also required to make treatment for mental health issues available to persons who have attempted suicide.


The structure of this study includes an analysis, from a comparative point of view, of the legal frameworks that exist in various countries on the right to commit suicide. After reviewing the available evidence, the author of this paper reviews the domestic state of affairs taking into account that the right to life includes the right to a good death. The final part of the paper includes a discussion of many different recommendations for future policy.



Indian Scenario:

The Indian legislature has enacted a significant number of legislations over the years. As a consequence of this, it should not come as a surprise that different regulations addressing the same subject may have contradictory interpretations. Resultantly, the Court is usually considered responsible for reviewing existing laws and providing a clear interpretation of them where there is ambiguity. This is done so that the Parliament may later settle any conflicts that exist between different pieces of legislation by setting it into law.


It seems like that is what happened when the Supreme Court raised attention to one of these irregularities, which is an issue that has not had a visible conciliation. By reading down Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 effectively decriminalized suicide. As a result, the Supreme Court ordered an explanation from the Union government about this apparent contradiction in the law, and required the then Attorney General, KK Venugopal to oversee this inquiry.


There are a few facets to this comment that demand special study, not the least of which is the urgent need to weed out policies that are no longer relevant in today’s world. IPC Section 309 is a provision that dates back to the colonial era, and it goes against the growing understanding that mental illness is a problem that has to be treated rather than discriminated against. For instance, mental illness frequently results in suicide, which is often considered a choice rather than a result of a health condition. On the other hand, the Mental Healthcare Act is a forward-thinking piece of legislation that promotes an ideation of suicide that is in keeping with the most recent scientific findings.


For example, Section 115 of the Act acknowledges the significant role that mental illness plays in people’s decisions to end their lives by putting an end to their own life. This argument is of crucial value to the families of those who have committed suicide because of the stigma that is connected to mental illness.


People who are in need of treatment must have access to medical facilities, but it is also vitally necessary to challenge the deeply ingrained biases that taint public discourse on suicide and contribute to the taboo around suicide as well as the silence surrounding it. There is opportunity for legal change considering the direction that international law is moving in this day and age. Both Canada and Ireland removed the criminal penaltiesfor suicide in 1972. The legal and public debate must take into account the fact that decriminalizing suicide might be an important first step in order to start a meaningful dialogue about preventing suicide. This is necessary in order to get the conversation started.



Study on Criminalization:

The International Suicide Prevention Association (IASP) policy released in May 2020 recommended that suicide attempts be decriminalized. Reducing societal stigma, increasing access to mental health treatment, and fostering suicide prevention activities can all be achieved by decriminalizing attempted suicide. Anti-suicide laws have subsequently eroded, especially in more secular regions of the world that allow for a wide range of non-religious and moral interpretations of suicide. In spite of numerous requests for the decriminalization of suicide, no comprehensive study or empirical evaluations have been conducted on the deterrent effect of anti-suicide legislation worldwide.


If the act of taking one’s own life is legally stigmatized, those who have attempted suicide and those who have survived a suicide attempt may feel humiliated and enraged. It logically follows that repealing any such legislation will have good long-term effects, including lowering the social stigma associated with suicide, increasing the number of individuals who seek professional care, and removing the burden of potential criminal prosecution from those who attempt suicide.




Global Review:

There are a number of countries in Africa that have legalized the act of suicide, while the vast majority of Asian nations, with a few notable exceptions like India, have decriminalized the act of attempting suicide. Even in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, scenarios are shifting lately.



In almost every state in the United States, both committing suicide and attempting suicide is allowed. Each year, there are over 40,000 people who take their own lives in the United States, which places suicide as the tenth leading cause of death in the country regardless of the method of death. On the other hand, the attempt to commit suicide was previously considered a criminal offence in several countries.


Today, it is quite unusual for charges to be brought against a criminal who is in the process of dying. In the case of Wackwitz v. Roy (1992), in which the question of whether or not suicide is legal, the Supreme Court of Virginia stated that it is conscious that it is legislative sanctioning that treats suicide as a crime. This statement was made during the course of the discussion regarding the legality of suicide. “No suicide should work a debasement of blood or forfeiture of an inheritance,” as the law states in Section 55–4 of the US Civil Code. Yet, this does not mean that the crime itself has been eliminated. This is due to the fact that committing suicide is considered a crime in a number of common-law jurisdictions, including Virginia.


Policy Design:

The right to one’s own lifeis one of the most fundamental rights, since it ensures that everyone may lead a respectable life. This right is more than just a requirement for the state not to interfere with the life or body components of an individual; rather, it is a fundamental right. The State was also given the responsibility of upholding the sanctity and dignity of human life, which constituted a positive obligation. As civilized jurisprudence changes its focus to the potential of State legislators decriminalizing suicide or attempts at suicide, the time has come to develop unambiguous legal norms on both the national and international levels. Regulation of physician-assisted euthanasia is necessary, at the very least in the United States, and the establishment of similar laws in other countries is just a matter of time. In the process of formulating policy, defining crucial terms related to mental illness and giving them an unmistakable meaning devoid of any room for interpretation ought to be given the highest priority.



Repercussions in India:

Under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 309 makes it clear that attempted suicide is still considered a criminal act. Those who are accused of the alleged offense have the choice between being released on bail, not having their cases compounded, or having their cases heard by a magistrate. People who participate in illegal or risky behaviors that cause harm to society or another human being are frequently considered to be criminally liable, as this is one of the primary reasons why they are held accountable for their actions.


One of the reasons to press criminal charges against an individual is to serve as a deterrent for those who might be tempted to engage in behavior that is unethical or detrimental to society. Even though it is illegal to attempt suicide, that does not prevent people from going through with it and killing themselves in the end. Because of their mental state, those who are suicidal will not ask about the consequences of their actions or whether or not they will be punished for what they have done. The use of jails and other types of punishment does notseem to have the effect of discouraging suicidal behavior. On the other side, punishment will not assist a person who is suicidal since it may aggravate their situation without rehabilitating them, which in turn may drive them to take their life. There are a still a few countries in Africa, like Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, that have made it illegal to commit suicide. It is for us to see whether India is a country that wants to be grouped with the aforementioned countries in terms of treatment of mental illness.


A few other Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, continue to criminalizeattempt to suicide. On the other hand, physician-assisted euthanasia is only legal in China, hence the practice is illegal everywhere else. In the United States, only Guyana and the Bahamas have legislation that makes it illegal to attempt to take one’s own life. On the other hand, euthanasia is illegal in most of the United States, with the exception of a few states. Although some countries prohibit physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, the Suicide Act in the United Kingdom makes it such that attempted suicide is not a crime.

People who try to end their own life should not be subject to legal consequences of incarceration by the State since they are not causing any harm to anybody else or to society as a whole when they do this. John Locke believed that the state should not interfere with an individual’s liberty provided that person’s actions did not negatively impact the rights of another person.


The majority of countries, including those that have decriminalized attempts at suicide, have laws that make it illegal to abet, aid, or encourage someone else to commit suicide. However, the nature of the actions that are considered illegal and the nature of the punishments vary greatly from country to country. There are 192 countries in the world, and 142 of them have laws that make it illegal to aid or encourage someone else to commit suicide. These prohibitions can include jail sentences. There is a lot of variety in the language of what is included in these Statutes, and once again, the level of enforcement varies widely from place to place. A sampling of the specific wording of what is deemed to be illegal in the laws provides some examples of the variety of descriptions of what is prohibited. For instance, “complicity in suicide” is prohibited in Bhutan and several other countries; “suicide pacts” are prohibited in Kenya; “direct provoking of a minor to suicide” is prohibited in Djibouti; “driving someone to suicide” or making a suicide attempt by way of threatening, cruel treatment, or systematic humiliation of human dignity.


Sociological implications:

Some people believe that the point of punishment is to teach people not to engage in illegal behavior in the future or contradict behaviors that have become normalized in society. It has not been demonstrated that threatening someone with jail time has a preventative effect on those who want to attempt suicide. In spite of the fact that one may anticipate that the number of suicide fatalities that are documented would be lower in nations where suicide is regarded as a taboo and criminal, the suicide rate is in fact, not lowerin nations that have laws that penalize those who attempt suicide.


As a consequence of retribution theory, it is commonly believed that the criminal committed a purposeful act of will in order to warrant the application of punishment. According to Mishara and Tousignant (2004) and the World Health Organization (2014), it is generally accepted that individuals who attempt suicide have a mental disorder that makes it difficult for them to make decisions that are reasonable or “right.” This is a theory that has gained widespread acceptance in recent years. Liberals, as a general rule, are of the opinion that penalizing people who attempt suicide is a reflection of society’s animosity against individuals who go against predetermined social standards and/or religion.


A criminal may also be made to suffer public humiliation as part of their sentence in order to illustrate the level of disapproval felt by the general population. During the 18th century, the body of an inhabitant of Quebec, Canada who had committed suicide was paraded through the streets and hung in public. As a consequence of this, the bodies of suicide victims are frequently dishonored and buried in locations that are not within cemeteries in many civilizations in the modern world. Putting someone behind bars for having attempted suicide is a frequent tactic to humiliate and degrade both the person and their family in the eyes of other people, as long as they are living.



It is necessary to push for the decriminalization of suicide in countries where it is considered as a crime rather than as a problem related to mental health. These countries include the United States and Canada. In addition, it would be useful to urge the formation of an international standard definition of “aiding, abetting, and assisting in suicide,” which encompasses all of these activities. In some countries, it is only criminal to make plans to end one’s own life, while in others, the concept of what constitutes illegal behavior is so broadly interpreted that even a passing remark to someone who is having suicidal thoughts might be construed as encouraging them to go through with it. Legislation and International law need to address the issue of aiding and abetting suicide in the cyberspace, as the internet is rapidly being used to encourage suicide and supply knowledge on different methods of committing suicide.


In countries where decriminalization of suicide has not taken place and is not going to take place, it is nevertheless vital to establish ways for giving mental health treatment to people who have attempted suicide. In the past, countries with liberal beliefs have been the ones to decriminalizesuicide by spreading the view that people who attempt suicide are not knowingly going against prevalent religious and cultural norms. This is done despite the fact that it is necessary to respect religious and cultural values.


The availability of empirical evidence demonstrates a common inability to make an informed and competent decision as a result of a mental illness, the use of substances, or being in a state of crisis. In addition, a person often makes an attempt at suicide when they are experiencing an intense amount of psychological suffering, and those who attempt suicide are more likely to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of their attempt. The overwhelming majority of people who attempt suicide have a requirement for mental health treatment and support services (WHO, 2014). We have reached the conclusion that the course of action that is likely to be the most successful in the great majority of circumstances is to approach the problem of suicidal behavior as a psychological and mental health issue.


Since the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 has been passed into law, there have been debates and discussions on the fact that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which was passed in 1860, may resultantly be repealed. Many people now believe that Section 309 is no longer in effect as a consequence of the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, which was passed in 2017. However, this new law did not result in the repeal of the aforementioned Section 309; rather, it restricted the applicability of that section. According to Section 115 of the Act, a person is deemed to be suffering from excessive stress when they attempt suicide; as a result, they are not liable to prosecution or punishment in accordance with Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.


It is crucial to notice that the Act does not explicitly repeal Clause 309 or make it applicable to all attempts at suicide. The only exception to this is the portion that presumes the individual who attempted suicide was under “severe stress.”



In spite of the fact that suicide is now legal, we continue to make a distinction between the act of attempting suicide by oneself and the act of having another person assist, provoke, or encourage suicidalbehaviour. Even in jurisdictions that make euthanasia and assisted suicide legal for persons who are suffering from a terminal illness or a condition that has no end in sight, the act of assisting another person in taking their own life is controversial. When dealing with this reality, it is crucial to be able to differentiate between a person’s psychological or emotional anguish and a medical condition that is becoming worse or has been going on for a long time.


Regardless of one’s religious or utilitarian allegiances or one’s Western liberal orientation, there is general consensus that supporting and aiding a suicide is morally wrong and ought to be punished. This is the case even if one is a Western liberal. However, there is no consensus that the person who is being assisted has a wounded conscious will. Cooley (2007) found that only a small number of rational suicides were respected. Hence, there is much ambiguity on which philosophy of punishment is more enlightened when considering our strong desire to punish those who help and abet those who commit crimes. It does not matter how we look at it; whether it is an act of retribution or an attempt to control the free and logical decision-making capacity of another individual, is a hard problem.

This Blog is Authored by Shruti Avinash, a third year student of the NALSAR University of Law.

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