Decriminalizing Suicide

General Assembly to consider abolishing common-law crime of suicide.

Suicide is illegal in Virginia, one of the few states that has not yet abolished the English common-law tradition of criminalizing the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Now members of the General Assembly are about to consider abolishing the common-law crime of suicide in the commonwealth, a tradition that dates back to the 13th century England. "It surprises me that this is still on the books at all," said Christy Letsom, chairwoman of the Virginia Suicide Prevention Coalition. "Study after study has shown this doesn't increase safety, it just defers behavior." The original common law was created when suicide was perceived as an immoral and criminal offense against God and king, who was deprived of one of his subjects as a result of the act. English law declared suicide to be s social injustice and an act of cowardice to be punished cruelly to discourage others from considering it. Today the law is more than a quirky old law. It has consequences in malpractice and insurance claims even though Virginia has no statute prescribing punishment."Although penal statues proscribing suicide or suicide attempts have been repealed or remain unenforced in most states, in a handful of states they or unchanged common law criminalized suicide continue to play an important role in tort claiming arising out of suicide," wrote Dr. Robert Simon, Dr. James Levenson and Dr. Daniel Shuman in a 2005 journal article.THE MOVEMENT to do something about the issue this year began in Alexandria, where family members who had experienced the grief of suicide approached members of the local delegation. They told state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) and Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45) that their family had been stigmatized enough by what had happened and that they didn't need the extra burden of having the criminal justice system looming in the background — even if only symbolically."They don't want their deceased loved one labeled as a criminal because she was mentally ill," said Ebbin. "It doesn't serve any purpose to have it in the code."Much of American law was originally derived from English common law, which is how the criminalization of suicide found its way into the Virginia code. Other than Massachusetts, though, no state has created a punishment for committing suicide. Massachussets repealed that statute years ago, and most states have already taken criminalization of suicide off the books. Not Virginia — at least not yet."This is part of a larger effort to bring attention to suicide as a mental-health issue," said Krupicka. "It's also about dealing with stigma."MOST STATES took action years ago — New Jersey in 1971, North Carolina in 1973 and Washington in 1976. Here in Virginia, forfeiture of goods has already been replaced as part of the common law. But a 1992 Virginia Supreme Court ruling showed that Virginia case law continues to view suicide as an "immoral and illegal act." For critics of the existing law, that only adds to the stigma of those who are living with mental illness or who have lost a loved one to suicide. "We know that those kinds of prohibitive and restrictive laws really don't have an impact for safety," said Letsom. "They gave people some legal authority to take action, but didn't actually end up helping. It was actually more hurtful than helpful."