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6 Washburn L.J. 395 (1966-1967)
Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide

handle is hein.journals/wasbur6 and id is 399 raw text is: ASPECTS OV SUICID

The purpose of this communication is to survey the changing legal as-
pects of suicide and their relationships to psychiatric practice. Society is
tending to view suicide less as a sin or crime, and more as an unfortunate
consequence of mental illness and social isolation. Social and judicial atti-
tudes regarding suicides have been gradually turning away from assessing
guilt and enforcing punishment, toward protecting suicidal persons, when
possible, and compensating the victims of suicide deaths.
For centuries, English law designated suicide as a special crime pun-
ished by mutilation of the body, sanctions on the place and manner of
burial, forfeiture of property, and censure of the family. It is questionable
whether these laws were effective in preventing suicide. Possibly they
tended to decrease the frequency of nonlethal suicide attempts. It became
apparent that in order to bypass the excessive penalties, self-deaths were
often labeled something other than suicide, and most suicide attempts
were not reported. In Britain, the penal sanctions against suicide were
gradually modified, and by 1962 the last of them had been repealed.
It should be emphasized that suicide is not against the law in most parts
of the United States of America. According to written reports from the
Attorney General of each of the states (in 1964), there are only nine states
-Alabama, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Okla-
homa, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington-in which suicide is a
crime. Since such punishments as mutilation of bodies or forfeiture of
estates are repugnant to the American spirit, no penalty is provided for
breaking the law against suicide, but in these states suicide attempts are
felonies or misdemeanors and could result in jail sentences, although the
laws are seldom enforced. In recent times, two states (Nevada, New York)
repealed such laws, stating in effect that suicide is a grave social wrong, but
there is no way to punish it. Twenty-three states have no penal statutes
referring to suicide. Eighteen states-Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida,
Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Mis-
ouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Wisconsin, Wy-
oming-have no laws against suicide or suicide attempts but they specify
that it is a felony to aid, advise or encourage another person to commit

*Chief Psychiatrist, Suicide Prevention Center, Los Angeles, California.


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