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Is Suicide Illegal?

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Aside from the question, “should a government be able to force people who wish to die to remain alive?” – that is, “should suicide be illegal?” – there is the question as to whether suicide really is illegal, in a meaningful sense. Many people who haven’t devoted much thought to the question don’t understand how a suicide prohibition might work (all charming quotations from All Philosophy):

how the hell do you plan to punish the people if they did it right they’d be FUCKEN dead!!! You can’tr do anything; even if it was illegal people, like me, would think about it and many do it anyway. It would be a waste of time and paper!

How could someone possibly be charged for killing themselves. I almost laugh seing the scenero of a trial. Whats gonna happen, they give someone who attempted suicide the death peanelty?

I don’t think it really matters, I mean if you are really serious about killing yourself, you’ll make sure you get the job done thus making the legality of it moot.

And my personal favorite, which sums the position up most beautifully:

how can they prosecute you when you’re dead?

It’s true – it’s impossible to really criminalize suicide, in the sense that if a person manages to successfully commit suicide, he or she is beyond the reach of the criminal justice system. But there are several ways, beyond a criminal penalty imposed on a successful suicide, that a genuine suicide prohibition is enforced.

First, the most reliable, painless methods for committing suicide are widely criminalized or at least restricted. These restrictions certainly function as prohibitions on suicide. If a would-be suicide cannot obtain a gun or appropriate medication, he or she is stuck either using a much more painful, much less reliable method, or, if he or she is not willing to do so (cut arteries or hang oneself, for instance), he or she is effectively prohibited from committing suicide.

Second, the act of assisting someone to commit suicide – even a competent adult who desperately wants to die – is widely criminalized. Those assisting terminally ill relatives in killing themselves are even routinely prosecuted for murder. This especially includes those with access to the best suicide methods, namely doctors.

Third, if a person attempts suicide but is discovered before he or she dies, he or she will be rushed to the hospital and treated, even against his or her will as stated in a medical advanced directive. The failure to respect the wishes of a suicide to refuse medical treatment functions as a legal prohibition. Some patients survive suicide attempts, only to live with severe brain damage or disfiguring physical injuries for the rest of their lives, especially if they suffer such severe injury that they are no longer practically capable of committing suicide. This is a risk of committing suicide under our current system.

Finally, there are penalties for committing suicide, such as the fact that life insurance policies may exclude suicide as a cause of death for which they must pay the decedent’s family a benefit. This focus on suicide as a decedent’s rational choice, which may respond to penalties, fails to square with the legal position underlying the forced resuscitation of suicide victims. Mandatory resuscitators (and those who support forced hospitalization for failed suicides) must hold the position that a suicide’s refusal of medical treatment is invalid, because he or she was necessarily mentally incompetent, and therefore unable to make rational decisions. However, the refusal of life insurance payouts to families of suicides relies on the assumption that the suicide is in rational control of his or her death, so that either it is unfair to expect the insurance company to pay, or the potential suicide will respond to the disincentive of no insurance payout in deciding whether to commit suicide. The positions are inconsistent. If suicide were really the result of mental incompetence, and the end of a sort of disease process, it would not be fair to exclude the families of suicides from life insurance benefits, any more than the families of cancer victims.