Do we have a right to suicide – a legal perspective
The right to suicide, like a lot of other instances in Indian law, is in a grey area with regards to its status.
The right to suicide along with the right to die, are two aspects of the law that seem to contravene Article 21 of The Constitution of India which states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”
While there has been a substantial debate about both terms, the right to suicide in particular has been of particular speculation.
Although suicide by itself is not an offense, Section 309 of The Indian Penal Code, has labeled attempt to suicide as an offense, stating;
“Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offense, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.”
Section 309 has been the subject of criticism by many medical scholars and legal institutions alike.
A countless number of judgments have criticized the judgment and have stressed the dire need to make amends.
Delhi High court in a landmark judgment of 1985 had commented that “the continuance of Section 309 I.P.C. (criminalizing suicide) is an anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours.” The Indian Penal Code had been formulated during British Raj Regime of 1860 and was mainly governed by British law of that time. Ironically, India continues to follow the archaic law even though Britain itself had decriminalized suicide way back in 1961.
Justice Chandrachud, of the Supreme Court of India, also touched upon the topic in a recent judgment and said and criticized the landmark Gian Kaur judgment of the past.
There have been a number of instances wherein the attempt to suicide was struck down as a law.
The decriminalization of suicide has a lot to do with mental health, as cited by various medical researchers and scholars.
Research suggests that psychiatric illness constitutes a major cause for nonfatal suicidal behavior. Risk factors for non-fatal suicide attempts by adults or youth include depression and other mental disorders. Other risk factors are childhood adversities such as sexual/physical abuse, abuse of alcohol or drugs, stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job or relationship, financial bankruptcy, imminent criminal prosecution and suffering from, or having recently been diagnosed with, a terminal illness. Essentially, people who attempt suicide are in need of help rather than punishment in view of association with a high psychiatric or psychological morbidity. The philosophical dilemmas surrounding the individual’s right to life and death has been debated, albeit inconclusively, across several disciplines with different outlook and perspectives.
In 2015, a Bill was passed by the parliament of India, titled, “The Mental Healthcare Act,2017”, which effectively decriminalized suicide via Article 115 listed therein, “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.“ It was a welcome change after years of archaic legislation and dismissive public attitude failed to do the same.