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Q: Suicide illegal ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   5 Comments )
Subject: Suicide illegal
Category: Relationships and Society > Law
Asked by: rjsawyer-ga
List Price: $25.00
Posted: 14 Dec 2003 21:56 PST
Expires: 13 Jan 2004 21:56 PST
Question ID: 287230
Is it true that successfully committing suicide is illegal in the
United States?  Is this a federal law, or something that's set
individually by each state, and, if the latter, in which states is
killing oneself actually illegal?  Are there any penalties for killing
oneself (I personally can't see how there could be, but laws often
have strange provisions)?  Note of reassurance:  I'm not depressed or
planning to kill myself; I'm a novelist, and this is a point I need to
pin down for a book I'm currently writing.
Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
Answered By: majortom-ga on 15 Dec 2003 06:47 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
According to a generally well-researched article on the legality of
suicide by Hermotimus Boukephalos, of the online support community, suicide is not a felony in any of the 50 states
although it may still be a misdemeanor in a few. However, again
according to Boukephalos, medieval law resorted to such interesting
measures as defiling the graves of suicides, presumably to deter those
who wished their souls to be welcome in heaven, and I have no doubt
this is interesting source material for you.


A review of the Revised Code of Washington State finds no statues
criminalizing suicide itself, while assisting the suicide of another
is definitely criminal in that state. Use of frames makes specific
entries in the revised code of Washington impractical to link to,
however here is the main search page for the RCW; I recommend searches
for both suicide and murder:

Revised Code of Washington State (Search)

To take another state example, according to an attorney locator
service, suicide is specifically not a crime in Illinois, though
assisting a suicide definitely is:

Attorney Locator Service Illinois Felony/Misdemeanor Law Page

US federal law clearly defines murder as the killing of another
person, which would clearly exclude the self:

Moreover section b) of the above definition of murder makes clear that
the actual jurisdiction of federal law with regard to such matters, is
limited to those areas where the federal government has special
jurisdiction (that is, under normal circumstances it is clearly a
state-by-state matter).

Perhaps most conclusive with regard to the state/federal question is
the fact that the state of Oregon has legalized assisted suicide, and
this law has survived all legal challenges as well as an attempt to
repeal it by referendum (the original law itself was established by an
earlier referendum):

State of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act Page

According to the Longwood University Library, Oregon is the only state
currently allowing assisted suicide, and several other states have
rejected such proposals in the past few years:

Longwood University Library Assisted Suicide Page

However suicide itself remains fully legal or (potentially, but
without confirmation) nominally still a misdemeanor on the books in
all 50 states of the Union.

Criminal law notwithstanding, this does not mean that the state cannot
interfere when a person is found to be suicidal. For instance, the
state code of New York allows hospitals to involuntarily hospitalize
mentally ill individuals found to be a threat to themselves. However
it is not entirely clear that all persons who are a "threat to
themselves" (suicidal) are by definition considered mentally ill. The
purpose of the law is presumably to prevent irrational suicides, but
in practice suicidal behavior is often presumed to be irrational. The
relevant law is quoted here:

New York Psychiatric Statues
rjsawyer-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Good answer, although the only direct affirmation that suicide is not
illegal in the US comes from the Hermotimus Boukephalos essay, and in
that essay, which otherwise footnotes its sources, the statement
"Suicide is no longer a felony in any of the United States, though it
may remain on the books as a misdemeanor in some jurisdictions" is
simply asserted without backup or source.  Also, nowhere in the answer
is the question of whether suicide is a midemeanor in any but two
states specifically discussed or resolved.

Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
From: crabcakes-ga on 15 Dec 2003 08:11 PST
Hi rjsawyer,

I had tried researching your answer earlier, but could not find enough
well documented information to formulate an answer. I'll post what
little I found ...perhaps you can glean a bit from it, although most
of it is not pertinent to your question.
Seems it is not illegal to commit suicide, but it is illegal to attempt suicide.

?Americans are permitted by law to terminate life in four kinds of
situations: abortion (because of the Supreme Court decision of January
22, 1973), capital punishment (though the Supreme Court struck down
the death penalty laws of thirty-nine states in Furman v. Georgia,
nineteen states, not yet ready to fire the hangman, have restored the
penalty), war (declared and undeclared), and, in some jurisdictions,

Its not illegal in Canada! ??  attempted suicide was not removed from
our Criminal Code until 1972. However, counselling suicide - sometimes
referred to as aiding and abetting suicide, still remains a criminal

It IS illegal in Guyana!

Illegal in the UK       Link
from brief is broken
Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
From: majortom-ga on 15 Dec 2003 09:04 PST
I do wish that had been footnoted too. However I did also find that
Illinois criminal law summary page, which specifically said that
suicide is legal to commit or attempt in that state. And of course I
also found that suicide is legal in Oregon, and that this has been
upheld through the federal courts, therefore there is no valid federal
law that supersedes it (hmm, but I failed to specifically mention that
the challenge made it to the federal circuit court level and was
upheld; finally the supreme court declined to hear it, which means
that the decision stands). Thanks for the opportunity to answer the
question, and for rating the answer in such a timely fashion.
Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
From: probonopublico-ga on 15 Dec 2003 09:35 PST
In England, a failed suicide attempt used to be punishable by death.
Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
From: youwantthetruth-ga on 15 Dec 2003 10:05 PST
I'm not very satisified with the answer, but it isn't the footnotes,
or the attribution, I think it is just that it fails to do the

I think you want to start with State v. Campbell, 217 Iowa 848,
(1934), which talks about suicide being a crime, and gives some
references to other cases holding that it is a felony, and giving some
historical background.

OPINION:  ALBERT, C. J.--To a fair understanding of the question
involved herein, the following facts are gleaned from the record:


It is true that at common law, under an act of Parliament, suicide was
a felony, and the property of the felo de se was forfeited to the
Crown, and he was ignominiously buried in the public highway and a
stake driven through his body. Such a provision does not exist under
the Code of Iowa. It is true that in some states the attempt to commit
suicide is made a crime and is punishable as such, but unless so made
by statute, suicide is not an unlawful act, and it is so held by the
Supreme Court of New York in the case of Darrow v. Family Fund
Society, 116 N.Y. 537, 22 N.E. 1093, 6 L. R. A. 495, 15 Am. St. Rep.
430. There being no statute in this state prohibiting suicide or the
attempt to commit suicide, under the foregoing definitions it cannot
be held that the attempt to commit suicide, charged against the
defendant in this instruction, was an unlawful act.

Two cases are cited, however, which deserve some attention.

The first is Commonwealth v. Mink, 123 Mass. 422, 25 Am. Rep. 109. The
fact situation in that case is almost identical with the fact
situation in the present case. The common-law rule of England is there
discussed, and prior statutes and decisions of the Massachusetts
Supreme Court are also discussed, and it is held that suicide
continues to be malum in se and a felony by reason of certain
provisions of their statutes. It is then said:

"Since it has been provided by statute that 'any crime punishable by
death or imprisonment in the state prison is a felony, and no other
crime shall be so considered,' it may well be that suicide is not
technically a felony in this Commonwealth. * * * But being unlawful
and criminal as malum in se, any attempt to commit it is likewise
unlawful and criminal. Every one has the same right and duty to
interpose to save a life from being so unlawfully and criminally
taken, that he would have to defeat an attempt unlawfully to take the
life of a third person. * * * And it is not disputed that any person
who, in doing or attempting to do an act which is unlawful and
criminal,  [***6]  kills another, though not intending his death, is
guilty of criminal homicide, and, at the least, of manslaughter. The
only doubt that we have entertained in this case is, whether the act
of the defendant, in attempting to kill herself, was not so malicious,
in the legal sense, as to make the killing of another person, in the
attempt to carry out her purpose, murder, and whether the instructions
given to the jury were not therefore too favorable to the defendant."

In the above-entitled case the defendant was convicted of
manslaughter, and not murder. Even at common law it is held that an
attempt to commit suicide is not an attempt to commit murder within
the meaning of the sections of the act referred to. Regina v. Burgess,
9 Cox C.C. 247.

The Mink case, above referred to, is commented on in State v. Levelle,
34 S.C. 120, 13 S.E. 319, 27 Am. St. Rep. 799, loc. cit. 808. Similar
to the holding in the Mink case, the South Carolina case quotes
certain provisions of their statute, and suicide is expressly
recognized "as retaining its common-law character as a felony."

The Illinois Supreme Court had before it this question in the case of
Burnett v. People, 204 Ill. 208, 68 N.E. 505, 66 L. R. A. 304, 98 Am.
St. Rep. 206, and in relation thereto said:

"By the English common law suicide was a felony, and the punishment
for him who committed it was interment in the highway with a stake
driven through the body, and the forfeiture of his lands, goods, and
chattels to the king. We adopted the English common law, and the acts
of the British Parliament in aid thereof, as it existed up to the
fourth year of James I, which was the year 1606, as far as the same
was applicable to our conditions and institutions and of a general
nature; but as we have never had a forfeiture of goods, or seen fit to
define what character of burial our citizens shall enjoy, we have
never regarded the English law as to suicide as applicable to the
spirit of our institutions. In the view we entertain of the case at
bar it is not necessary that suicide be held to be a crime."

In Wagner v. Bissell, 3 Iowa 396, loc. cit. 402, this court said:

"Unlike many of the states, we have no statute declaring in express
terms, the common law to be in force in this state. That it is,
however, has been frequently decided by this court, and does not,
perhaps, admit of controversy. But while this is true, it must be
understood that it is adopted only so far as it is applicable to us as
a people, and may be of a general nature."

In State v. Twogood, 7 Iowa 252, we said:

"It is also objected that the offense charged is not known to the law
of this state. The argument is, that the offense charged has not been
declared criminal by the Code, and that common law offenses, without a
statutory declaration, are not punishable in this state. We have no
statute declaring the common law in force in this state. That it is in
force, however, has been frequently decided by our courts, and we
suppose it to be no longer an open question."

Wharton's Criminal Law (12th Ed.) vol. 1, p. 801, section 581, states
the law to be that:

"Killing another, unintentionally and negligently, such other being
desirous of committing suicide, is manslaughter."

The authorities cited to support this, aside from the Massachusetts
case, are all English cases, and the same authority is cited for the
proposition that (section 582):

"As we have already seen, an attempt to commit suicide has been held
to be a misdemeanor."

It is a settled rule in this state that criminal statutes are to be
strictly construed, and not extended to include an offense not clearly
within the fair scope of the language employed. State v. Bunn, 195
Iowa 9, 190 N.W. 155; State v. Niehaus, 209 Iowa 533, 228 N.W. 308. It
is also settled in this state that there are no common-law offenses
and that all crimes are statutory. State v. Banoch, 193 Iowa 851, 186
N.W. 436; State v. Flory, 203 Iowa 918, 210 N.W. 961; State v. Lamb,
209 Iowa 132, 227 N.W. 830.

A case that throws some light on this proposition is Estes v. Carter,
10 Iowa 400. There an action was brought for slander charging the
plaintiff with having committed sodomy. A demurrer was overruled, and
it is said:

"Besides, the statutory offenses so nearly cover all the common law
offenses, that it is reasonable to infer that those which are omitted
were intended to be excluded. * * * In this state the mode of
punishing the crime of sodomy is not prescribed by law, and in the
absence of such statutory authority the court can exercise no such
power. The demurrer in this case should have been sustained."

We reach the conclusion, therefore, that under the Iowa law, suicide
is not unlawful, and that an attempt to commit it as claimed in the
instant case cannot be considered an unlawful act. This conclusion is
in accord with the conclusion reached by the Supreme Court of Maine in
the case of May v. Pennell, 101 Me. 516, 64 A. 885, 7 L. R. A. (N. S.)
286, 115 Am. St. Rep. 334, 8 Ann. Cas. 351.


Whether the attempt to commit suicide is a public offense as a matter
of fact has nothing to do with the offense of murder. Murder is
defined by statute. See section 12910 of the 1931 Code. The killing of
another human being by one while he is attempting to commit suicide
may amount to murder in the first degree, as defined by section 12911
of the Code. But there would be no murder in either the first or the
second degree if one, while committing a public offense (except those
offenses named in section 12911 of the Code), kills another, unless
there is malice aforethought and the other elements necessary to
constitute murder.

For the error above pointed out, in the instruction, the case is reversed.

All Justices concur. 
Subject: Re: Suicide illegal
From: corporatelegal-ga on 13 Jan 2004 10:17 PST
Greetings!Just one comment:

 Constitution of any country confers certain inherent fundamental
rights and freedom to its citizens. These rights include but are not
limited to right to live, right to education, right to employment,
freedom of speech and expression etc.
 Having said so, it is important to state here that that the rights
are discretionary in nature, i.e. right to work does not essentialy
mean that one HAS TO work. Similarly, right to business does not
compel any1 to have a business. The rights are PERMISSIVE in nature
and not MANDATORY.
 The so called fundamental rights are however subject to reasonable
restrictions as may be more specifically laid out in Constitution of a
particular State like decency, public morality, etc.,It is felt that
attempt to commit suicide is a crime belonging to a genre that
signifies societal disapproval of an act against sanctity of human
life. Thus by declaring attempt to commit suicide a crime the law
seems to uphold the dignity of human life. Infact, in the case of
Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide(s), the countries  that
advocate 'mercy killing' are Holland, Northern Provinces of Australia 
as well as some states in the United States of America. The
Netherlands is  the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia.
'Right to death' is different from euthanasia. Euthanasia means 'a
good and peaceful death'. The term 'terminal', as defined by medical
experts,as a disease that cannot be cured or has no remedy. However,
the final remedy is DEATH.
One may however conclude/argue that right to live includes right to
die (on the basis of permissive nature of these rights). This is
because for those whose basic necessities of life are yet to be met
the promise of right to life still remains as the last hope. Desire of
communion with God may very rightly lead even a very healhty mind to
think that he would forego his right to live and would rather choose
not to live. A dying, terminally ill person or one in a persistent
vegetative state seeking termination of his or her life may be covered
by the ambit of the ?right to die? with dignity, as a part of the
right to live with dignity, when death due to termination of natural
life is certain and imminent and the process of natural death has
commenced. These are not cases of extinguishing life but only of
accelerating the conclusion of the process of natural death which has
already commenced. However such termination is also unlawful in many
of the countries.

The above argument however does not hold good. The principle that
fundamental rights such as freedom of speech also include the negative
aspect of the right (i.e. that there should not be compulsion to
exercise the right) is not applicable to the right to life because of
the difference in the nature of the rights in question. This is
RIGHTS. If there be no right to live, other rights would have no
significance to mankind.suicide is an unnatural termination or
extinction of life and, therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with
the concept of right to life.



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