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Laws to censor or criminalize
suicide information sources

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Background (Repeated):

Information about how to commit suicide is a delicate topic.

  • On the one hand, guarantees of freedom of speech in the U.S. and Canada permit dissemination of a wide range of speech and writing that deal with unpopular and controversial topics like this one.

  • On the other hand, suicide is often a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Many persons who commit suicide are depressed and without hope. Yet depression can frequently be lifted with medication, support, and therapy. Circumstances often change to give people hope. If committing suicide is facilitated by disseminating how-to information, a person might kill themselves instead of choosing to stay alive, struggle with the depression and hopefully lead a long worthwhile life.

Some argue that suicide is defensible for one group of individuals: those with a terminal illness who are in intractable pain or who are experiencing a permanent loss of autonomy that they find unacceptable. With the state of health care in North America and in particular the state of pain management for terminally ill patients, some have argued that suicide can be a rational choice to avoid having to continue a life that is intolerable to them.

We consider putting pets and farm animals "to sleep" to be an act of kindness. But we do not allow humans to be treated in the same way. They must engineer their own suicide. They cannot obtain assistance in dying. Physician Assisted suicide is illegal in all of Canada and in almost all states in the U.S.

There are victims of disease for whom every hour remaining alive is another 60 minutes of agony. If they wish to commit suicide they must arrange it themselves. Some want access to sources of information on suicide. However, there are legislators and governments that attempt to keep this type of information from becoming generally available. They are concerned that knowledge will lead to more people seeking suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem..

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Attempts to restrict information access in the U.S.

On 2006-DEC-08, Rep. Walter Herger (R-CA) introduced the "Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Promotion Punishment and Prevention Act of 2006" H.R. 6412. Three Republicans and one Democrat cosponsored the bill.

The bill is named after Suzy Gonzales, a 19-year-old former coed at Florida State University who was a Southern Baptist. She was suicidaly depressed. She posted over 100 messages on an on-line Internet discussion group whose members were "pro-choice" on suicide. Their site contained a "methods" page that gave step-by-step instructions on how to commit suicide. Fourteen members of the group had allegedly committed suicide by the time that she terminated her life on 2003-MAR-23 by ingesting poison. 1

The bill would criminalize one-on-one counseling on methods of committing suicide to a person who is likely to use the information to end their life. Congressional Research Service provided a summary of the bill. It would amend:

"... the federal criminal code to prohibit the use of any facility of interstate or foreign commerce to teach a person how to commit suicide, or to provide such person with material support or resources in committing suicide, knowing such person is likely to use such assistance to commit suicide. Imposes a fine and/or prison term of not more than five years for violations. Increases the prison term to any number of years or life if a violation results in a death."

The bill would insert section 1123 into the United States Code, stating:

Interstate suicide promotion

    `(a) Whoever knowingly uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce with intent--

      `(1) to teach a particular person how to commit suicide, knowing that the person so taught is likely to use that teaching to commit suicide; or

      `(2) to provide a particular person with material support or resources to help such person commit suicide, knowing that the person is likely to use the support to commit suicide;

    shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both, but if the death of any person is caused by the offense, the term of imprisonment that may be imposed for the offense is any term of years or for life. 2

The bill was forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee, where it did not proceed. 3

Rep. Herger reintroduced the same bill on 2007-MAR-01 as H.R. 940. It was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and then to its Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. It did not advance. 4

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Australia law restricting information:

During mid-2005, the Australian Parliament passed laws banning web sites on the Internet, and the outlawing the use of a telephone or fax, to incite people to commit suicide or to disseminate information on how a person can kill themselves. 5 The prime target of the laws appears to have been Exit International, a voluntary euthanasia information and advocacy organization founded by Dr. Philip Nitschke in Darwin, Australia. Exit International has chapters in over 25 cities and towns in Australia and New Zealand. 6

Justice Minister Chris Ellison said that the legislation is:

"... designed to protect the young and the vulnerable, those at greatest risk of suicide, from people who use the Internet with destructive intent to counsel or incite others to kill themselves."

This is a much broader law than the proposed H.R. 940. It criminalizes books or Internet sites about abortion written for dissemination to the general public.

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New Zealand book censorship:

In 2007, the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification had denied distribution of the Australian book "The Peaceful Pill Handbook." The book describes various methods of committing suicide, and the legal aspects of the various approaches. 7  The book is: "Aimed at the elderly and people who are seriously ill and who wish to know their end of life options." 8

Bill Hastings, the Chief Censor of New Zealand subsequently allowed a modified version of the book into the country and gave it a R18 classification. This restricts its sale to persons over the age of 18 and requires that it be displayed with a warning label and in a sealed package. Key segments of the original text were removed in order to have it pass the censor. 9

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Julia Scheeres, "A virtual path to suicide: Depressed student killed herself with help from online discussion group," San Francisco Chronicle, 2003-JUN-08, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  2. Text of: "H.R. 6412 [109th]: Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Promotion Punishment and Prevention Act of 2006," at: http://www.govtrack.us/
  3. "H.R. 6412 [109th]: Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Promotion Punishment and Prevention Act of 2006," GovTrack.US, at: http://www.govtrack.us/
  4. "H.R. 940: Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2007," GovTrack. US, at: http://www.govtrack.us/
  5. "Australia clamps down on Nitschke’s web suicide trade," International Task Force, 2005-JUN, at:  http://www.internationaltaskforce.org/
  6. "Welcome to Exit International," at: http://www.exitinternational.net/
  7. Philip Nitschke & Fiona Stewart, "The Peaceful Pill Handbook: New revised international edition."
  8. "Peaceful Pill Handbook" at: http://drjackkevorkianstory.com/
  9. "Notice of decision under Section 38(1), Office of Film & Literature Classification, at: http://exitinternational.net/

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Copyright © 2008 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2008-AUG-12
Last update: 2012-JAN-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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