Law

For reasons of State

Stephen Sedley · A Decent Death · LRB 21 October 2021

A sharp pen from Stephen Sedley, a former appeal court judge, in the LRB.

Absurdly and cruelly, until the 1961 Suicide Act was passed it was a crime to kill yourself. While those who succeeded were beyond the law’s reach, those who tried and failed could be sent to jail. In the 1920s the home secretary had to release a Middlesbrough woman with fourteen children who had been given three months in prison for trying to kill herself. There is a Pythonesque sketch waiting to be written about a judge passing a sentence of imprisonment for attempted suicide: ‘Let this be a lesson to you and to any others who may be thinking of killing themselves.’ In fact, by the mid 19th century the law had got itself into such a tangle that a person injured in a failed attempt at suicide could be indicted for wounding with intent to kill, an offence for which Parliament had thoughtfully provided the death penalty.

But the repeated resort by doctrinal opponents of assisted dying to the need for safeguarding tends to be directed not to resolving any difficulties but to amplifying and complicating them to the point of obstruction – the kind of argument which, as Gore Vidal once put it, gives intellectual dishonesty a bad name.

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