Introduction

Suicide is a non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with an intention to die. This intention can be triggered due to numerous factors such as Psychiatric illness, Depression, Other mental disorders, Sexual/physical abuse (inclusive of childhood adversities), Abuse of alcohol/drugs, Stressful life events such as loss of loved one, imminent criminal prosecution, suffering from or diagnosed with terminal illnesses etc.[1]This act of commission of suicide or even attempt was criminalized and still continue to merit penal provisions in numerous countries to this date like Singapore, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Ghana etc.  Much of the legal stance against suicide originated from the declaration by St. Augustine (AD 354-430) that suicide is a sin; this led to suicide being viewed as a criminal act by governments that were influenced by the religious institutions. [2]Even Hinduism explicitly condemns suicide through Dharmashastras, a treatise on the code of living in ancient India. For instance, Yama Smriti (600BC) holds that the bodies of those who end their lives by suicide should be defiled. If a person survives the attempt, he should pay a fine. The ancient Hindu living principles sanctioned some suicides, such as committing suicide to expiate sins such as incest, or the suicide of those suffering from incurable disease and unable to perform their religious duties, and ‘Sati’ or ‘Suttee’ which demands that a widow should seek death by self-immolation with her husband immediately after his death. [3] Destigmatization of the act of suicide has had a long journey. The wave of looking at people who commit suicide or attempted to, as criminals, to that of victim of mental stress and in need of help has still left some civilized countries of the world where suicide is still a crime. This wave of realization owes its inception to many sources including Emile Durkheim’s (Sociologist) pioneering work on suicide which proved that external pressures or societal stressors can lead to suicidal behavior. Another major factor which influenced change in societal attitude about suicide was the dawn of psychology. Sigmund Freud proposed the concept of psychosis and suggested that mental disorders were in fact, medical conditions. Thus, acceptance of the concept that mental or emotional distress could be due to natural factors facilitated the chande in civil, criminal and religious laws related to suicide. [4] Internationally, Germany was the first country in the world to decriminalize attempted suicide. [5]In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed the canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had committed suicide. All these developments have been instrumental in shifting attitudes towards suicide in the modern world. [6]

This paper therefore studies the cases of 3 countries namely India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Sri Lanka which previously penalized suicidal attempt till 1998 has adopted decriminalization for the last 2 decades whereas India decriminalized attempt to suicide after the passing of Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. Lastly, Singapore still continues to consider attempt to suicide as a crime. A study of these three countries helps to study the impact of such a provision (i) after 20 years of being in force in case of Sri Lanka (ii) efficiency of a legislation passed recently in the case of India and (iii) effects of criminalizing attempted suicide. The area of assisted suicide and euthanasia are out of the scope of this paper.

Factors leading to commission of suicide

An estimated 804 000 suicide deaths occurred worldwide in 2012, representing an annual global age-standardized suicide rate of 11.4 per 100 000 population (15.0 for males and 8.0 for females). [7] However, since suicide is a sensitive issue even illegal in some countries, under-reporting of instances is widespread. Therefore there is a lack of conclusive evidence to pin point a single factor leading to suicide. Therefore there could be numerous factors leading to commission of suicide namely:-

  • Mental Factors: Mental disorders or illnesses can contribute largely towards intention to commit suicide. This is exacerbated by the stigma attached to mental health and the reluctance of victims to approach institutions which cater to such needs. Lack of awareness further leads to augmentation of the problem of implementation of machineries to cater services related to mental health. The case of veteran actress Parveen Babi who suffered from Schizophrenia is an example of how mental health can lead to commission of suicide. The reports from psychological autopsy studies conducted in developed countries suggest that psychiatric disorders are present in about 90% of people who die by suicide and that these conditions contribute to 47–74% of the population attributable to the risk of suicide. [8][9]More than half of those who commit suicide in developed countries meet diagnostic criteria for an affective disorder at the time of committing the act.
  • Sexual/ Physical abuse : Is one of the factors which plays a big role in commission of suicide in female victims.[10] It is observed social and economic caused have led most of the males to commit suicide, whereas emotional and personal causes inclusive of abuse have mainly driven females to end their lives. Instances of suicide following demand for dowry still claims a lot of lives even after legal provision to prevent the same. One of the major reasons of suicide among children is sexual and physical abuse even at the hand of family.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse: Alcoholism (including alcohol dependence and abuse) has consistently been established as one of the risk factors for suicide in India. [11]Awareness regarding the same has been brought to the fore through different medium. The rampant abuse of drugs especially during election in the state of Punjab has caught the public eye through the written as well as the visual world.
  • Other factors: Interpersonal and marital conflicts, [12] financial problems [13] poverty [14] lack of social justice [15] social inequities [16] and unemployment. [17]Other cultural, social, economic and political factors can lead to commission of suicide as well.

Arguments in favour of criminalization and decriminalization of attempt to suicide

In favour of crimnalization –

  • The first argument in favour of criminalization of suicide and attempt to suicide is based on religious tenets or belief that since God Is the creator of life, he alone has the right to take it away. Suicidal death is associated with bringing dishonor to the entire lineage, social stigma and other consequences. [18]In Hinduism a person who commits suicide is said to be deprieved of till the late 18th century, the Roman Catholic Church did not provide proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had committed suicide. Suicide was rather prescribed as a punishment for some offences such as incest or those suffering from incurable diseases. Though such religious believes have failed to influence legal stances in most countries of the civilized word but still certain countries which derive its laws majorly from religious tenets continue to treat suicide as a crime and people committing and attempting to commit suicide as criminals such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Countries like North Korea have even harsher punishments where the person who attempts suicide is penalized along with his family and relatives.
  • The second argument is that criminalization of suicide and attempt shall act as a deterrent. However, it is not conclusive whether a law which prosecutes suicide attempters acts as a deterrent or not. Internationally, the research on the impact of repeal of anti-suicide legislation has yielded mixed results. In 1992, Lester compared suicide rates in Canada in the 10-year periods before and after decriminalization of suicide, and found no increase in the rate of suicide following decriminalization. Similarly, no change was observed in the New Zealand during the decade before or after decriminalization [19] Compared the suicide rates in seven countries (Canada, England and Wales, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, and Sweden) 5 years prior and 5 years following decriminalization, with an increase in the suicide rates after decriminalization of suicide. This increase in suicide rates can be possibly explained due to better reporting of such attempts as earlier they could have been reported as accidents to prevent legal hassles.[20]

In favour of decriminalization –

  • Suicidal behavior is can be attributed to psychiatric illness or distress mostly, which merits assistance not punishment. As many as 93% of suicide attempters were found to be psychiatrically ill at the time of commission of the act, though a psychiatric contact was established by only 33-50% of them. Penal sanctions will only serve to exacerbate suicidal persons′ risk for depression, anxiety, and repetitive suicidal behavior.[21]
  • Suicidal behavior is mostly a result of the pressure exerted by external factors out of the reach or control of the person such as poverty, financial reasons, marital problems etc. These factors could be both biological as well as socio-economic. State shall not consider such a person as a criminal and the act as a crime against the state as the state itself may be indirectly responsible for the plight of the victim who is left with no other alternative, except but to end his life.[22]
  • Decriminalization of the crime of suicide or attempt to suicide will provide the victim safety to approach institutions which cater mental health services or expressly ask for help without the fear of prosecution. This would not only help to gather reliable data on suicide unlike the previous state where suicide cases went unreported due to fear of prosecution but also efficient policies can be formulated and distributed effectively.

History of Suicide Laws in India

India previously penalized attempt to suicide under Section 309 of IPC which read as:

“Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.”

This had been enshrined in the Indian Penal Code since it was brought by the British government in pre independence era in 1860 even though Britain itself had decriminalized suicide in 1961. Thereafter, numerous law commission reports and judicial pronouncements has placed the legal stance on criminalization of attempt to suicide on the basis of rationale and law. The first wave toward decriminalization started in 1981 when the Delhi High Court condemned the Section 309 of Indian Penal Code as “unworthy of human society” and its Bombay Counterpart, in 1986, held it to be ultra vires on the ground that it violates Articles 14 and 21 of Indian Constitution. [23] Even the 42nd Law commission report in 1971 had advised repealing of the criminalization of attempted suicide under sec. 309. Thereafter in 1978, Indian Penal Code (amendment) bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha and was awaiting the approval of Lok Sabha when it was dissolved and the same lapsed. Unfortunately, the stance of Supreme court on Sec. 309 was overruled a couple of years later by a five-judge constitutional bench of the apex court subsequently, who then reinstated the law in the 1996 in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. [24]The commission then submitted its 156th report in 1997 after the Gian Kaur judgment, recommending retention of section 309.

However the Law commission in its 210th report recommended that attempt to suicide warranted medical and psychiatric care and not punishment. In view of the opinions expressed by the WHO, International Association for Suicide Prevention, the Indian Psychiatric Society and the representations received by the commission from various persons, the commission resolved to recommend the government of India to initiate steps for repeal of the anachronistic law contained in section 309, IPC.[25]

As law and order is a state subject, the central government requested the views of states/UTs on the recommendations of the law commission. Eighteen states and 4 UT administrations supported that Section 309 of the IPC may be deleted. Thus keeping in view the responses from the states/UTs, after on and off stand regarding this section by various law bodies like courts and law commissions for nearly three decades, it has been announced on December 10, 2014, to delete section 309 of IPC from the statute book[26]

Lastly, the mental healthcare act, 2017 decriminalised attempt to suicide and prescribes that the same will not merit penal actions. According to the Section 115 of Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA), 2017, suicide attempters are presumed to have severe stress, not to be punished and the government should have duty to provide care, treatment, and rehabilitation to reduce the risk of recurrence. Decriminalization might lead to openly seeking help, improvement in epidemiological data, better planning, and resource allocation. [27]Even then, awareness about decriminalization of suicide has been very poor. Mediums like hospital authorities and state should take measures to create more awareness.

History of suicide laws in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka penalized attempt to suicide in much the same way as India did till 1998. Though Sri Lanka was one of the world’s highest suicide reporting countries till about mid-1990s, recent figures on suicide in Sri Lanka show a relative decline. This has been brought about by numerous policy changes along with change in the penal provision. Before 1990s as has been said, Sri Lanka had a high suicide rate. In the light of the same, a presidential committee was set up in 1997 which recommended decriminalization of attempt to suicide. Besides decriminalization of the attempted suicide law, the committee also recommended an increase in medical services (including those for the management of serious mental illness) and discouraged widespread media reporting of the prevalence of suicide incidents. In May 1998, the Parliament implemented an act to repeal the country’s strict laws on taking one’s own life.[28]It also heavily censored the distribution of substances used to commit suicide especially pesticides. In a study named Suicide in Sri Lanka : Past, Present and future transformations by WHO, Forum for suicide and cultural research along with National Science Foundation it was found that the fall in the suicide rate was the result of sales restrictions placed on the most toxic pesticides, and not the result of falling levels of suicide attempts per se. In fact, the evidence suggests that the number of suicide attempts has actually increased in the same period, with suicidal behavior remaining a leading cause of serious injury and death in youth and older persons in Sri Lanka. Therefore Sri Lanka has been able to tackle the problem of suicides by not merely decriminalizing attempt to suicide but by also taking other policy measure. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in Asia to formulate and implement National Suicide prevention strategy by the Presidential committee in 1997. The action plan aimed at –

  • Reduce easy access to lethal methods;
  • Promote research on reducing the lethality of pesticides in use;
  • Educate the public on less harmful use of pesticides;
  • Create a culture which discourages suicides;
  • Ensure survival after poisoning; and
  • Remove legal barriers to the correct handling of those at risk.[29]

History of suicide laws in Singapore

Suicide is responsible for 2.4% of all deaths in Singapore, and this percentage is highest for those 20-29 years of age. [30]Much like India, Singapore adapted its penal code due to English colonization. Singaporean Penal code was established in 1971 and is more or less similar to the Indian Penal Code. Presently, any person who attempts suicide can face imprisonment up to a year, or a fine, or both. Although attempt to suicide is not decriminalized, the state has adopted humanized enforcement practices such as the state only presses charges in three circumstances: (1) when the person repeatedly tries to kill himself; (2) when resources are wasted in preventing him from taking his life; or (3) where the person trying to kill himself has committed other offenses in the process, such as injuring another person.[31] The police may even individuals to seek counseling or refer them to the Institute of Mental Health for treatment. Patients admitted to a government hospital for treatment for attempting suicide have to be reported to the police so that law enforcement can document and keep records. Most individuals who attempt suicide are arrested, but in 2007 only 11 individuals were charged in court. Therefore, Singapore’s implementation of the attempted suicide law is humanized.[32]But with the international wave of decriminalization of attempted suicide, the Singaporean government has also set up a committee (Penal Code review committee) set up in 2016 has opined that section 309 which criminalises attempt to suicide should be repealed and the focus should be on treatment rather than prosecution.[33] Necessary amendment shall also be made in the Mental Health (care and treatment) Act to provide mental healthcare services to those in need.

Conclusion

Criminalization of suicide or attempt to suicide historically had its roots in religious beliefs. But with segregation of law from religious beliefs in the modern world, most countries repealed laws penalizing people who commit act motivated by suicidal behavior though some countries still continue to penalize attempt to suicide. The case study of India, Sri Lanka and Singapore regarding suicide laws provides a framework of the influence of international guidelines, policies and plans regarding the mentioned laws and the need to provide treatment rather than prosecution in suicide cases. Case study of Sri Lanka also brought to the fore that mere decriminalization of attempt to suicide cannot conclusively bring down suicide rates unless it is followed by other policy measures such as control over distribution of substances used to commit suicide. Therefore, decriminalization of attempt to suicide is a step towards the right direction but cannot be the sole means to achieving the goal of lower suicide rates.

ENDNOTES

[1]Joiner T. Myths about suicide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2010.

[2]K S Latha, “Criminalizing Suicide Attempts: Can it be a deterrent?”, Med. Sci. Law (2004) Vol. 44, No. 4.

[3] Id.

[4] Prakash B. Behere & others, “Decriminalization of attempted suicide law: Journey of fifteen decades”, Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2015 Apr-June (57 (2), 122-124.

[5] Kazarian SH, Evans DR, Academic Press; 2001, Handbook of Cultural Health Psychology.

 [6]Crouch Foundation. The History of Suicide. [Last cited on 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.crouchfoundation.org/history-of-suicide.html.

[7] Preventing Suicide- global imperitive, World Health Organization report.

[8] Cavanagh JTO, Carson AJ, Sharpe M, et al. Psychological autopsy studies of suicide: a systematic review. Psychol Med 2003;33:395–405. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/ S0033291702006943.

 [9]Moscicki E. Epidemiology of suicide. In: Goldsmith S (ed). Risk Factors for Suicide. Summary of a workshop. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001, 1–4.

[10] National Crime Records Bureau. Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. New Delhi: Government of India, 2004–2013.

[11]Vijayakumar L, Rajkumar S. Are risk factors for suicide universal? A case-control study from India. Acta Psychiatr Scand 1999;99:407–11.

 [12]Gururaj G, Isaac MK, Subbakrishna DK, et al. Risk factors for completed suicides: a case-control study from Bangalore, India. Inj Control Saf Promot 2004;11: 183–91.

[13] Rane A, Nadkarni A. Suicide in India: a systematic review. Shanghai Arch Psychiatry 2014;26:69–80.

 [14]Jacob KS. The prevention of suicide in India and the developing world: the need for population-based strategies. Crisis 2008;29:102–6

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Supra note 12.

[18] Yadwad BS, Gouda HS. Is attempted suicide and offence? J Indian Acad Forens Med 2005;27:108-111

[19]Lester D. Decriminalization of suicide in seven nations and suicide rates. Psychol Rep 2002;91:898

[20] Anju Dhawan and others, (De-) Criminalisation of attempted suicide in India- a review, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1, January-June, 2014, pp. 4-9

[21] Supra Note 20.

[22] Government of India. Humanization and decriminalization of attempt to suicide (Report No. 210); 2008. Available from: http://www.jeywin.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Report210-Humanization-and-decriminalization-of-Attempt-to-commit-Suicide.pdf.

 [23]Dr. B.S. Yawad and others, “is attempted suicide an offence”, JIAFM, 2005 : 27 (2). ISSN 0971-0973 and Theophilus HJ. To be or not to be. Deccan Herald. 1996 May 5.

[24]  MANU/SC/0335/1996

 [25]Supra note 4.

[26] Government Decriminalizes Attempted Suicide: What About Fasting Activists., Available from:http://www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Govt-decriminalizes-attempted-suicide-What-about-fasting-activists/movie-review/45464644.cms.

[27] Ranjan R, Kumar S, Pattanayak RD, Dhawan A, Sagar R. (De-) criminalization of attempted suicide in India: A review. Ind Psychiatry J 2014;23:4-9.

[28] Deborah L. Kahn1 & David Lester, “Efforts to decriminalize suicide” , Suicidology Online 2013; 96-104.

[29]]https://suicideandculture.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/suicide-in-sri-lanka-proceedings_final1.pdf

 [30]Supra note 28.

[31] M. Toh, (2008), When all hope is lost http://www.asiaone.com/Health/News/Story/A1Story2008 0811-81770.html (accessed 8/12/2011).

[32] Celebrating the 150th Birthday of Singapore’s penal code law.nus.edu.sg/about_us/news/2010/newsPenalCodeSymposium.pdf (accessed 8/12/2011).

[33] https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/abolish-law-attempted-suicide-proposes-committee-tasked-review-penal-code (accessed on Sept 9, 2018).

The article has been written by Sneha Sanyal

This article was first published in the Blog namely The Criminal Law Blog