Suicide Bill, 1991: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I also welcome this Bill and congratulate Senator Neville and the other members of Fine Gael for putting it on the Order Paper. I am delighted to support the Bill and to give it the support of the Labour party and I would be delighted to see it accepted by the Minister.

This is very necessary legislation. It seeks to decriminalise the crime of suicide or attempted suicide. Anybody who takes a reasonable attitude to the whole area of crime and punishment must regard this as a pressing matter. It is ludicrous to say you can punish somebody for taking his or her life. Once the person is dead he or she could hardly be punished. It is ludicrous to have that type of offence on the Statute Book and is ineffective as a deterrent. We should have introduced this legislation years ago. In fact in the neighbouring island it is 25 to 30 years since suicide or attempted suicide was decriminalised. The problem, of course, is that it results in a stigma and shame on the family of the unfortunate person who has taken his or her life. In the past all the issues associated with it, the criminal action taken, the forfeiture of goods, the stigma, the ostracisation, the denial of a Christian burial, hark back to a previous era which we should leave behind. We should have a much more enlightened attitude.

Criminalising something is supposed to punish, to deter, to reform, to rehabilitate but the law at present does not do any of those things in relation to suicide; therefore, it should be taken off the books and we should deal with the underlying problem. We should respond to this problem as a Christian society. We should shift from the negative approach of criminalising and shunning, to a positive approach of sympathy, counselling, assistance and treatment for those at risk. That should be our new approach. It is an issue of public and social health as well as a symbol of a humane society. Very little work is done to help people at risk who might commit suicide. I would like to compliment the Samaritans for their work in this area. It is a lonely path they follow and they give very good advice. That is the type of approach necessary to deal with the problem.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of suicides. The official records are generally regarded as an underestimation. The recorded figure given at present is approximately 300 suicides per year and if we increse that figure by 20 per cent that works out at nine per 100,000 — and that is the conservative estimate.

The most recent studies were carried out by Kelleher and Daly. Last year, for males between 17 and 35 years, there was a 300 per cent increase and the group most at risk were at the younger end of the scale. According to the study, the suicide rate among Irish males under the age of 35 increased by over 300 per cent from 1970 to 1985, an enormous increase. There are many reasons people commit suicide. There has been an increase in substance abuse, and a major increase in unemployment.

The study revealed that in the Cork area two-thirds of those who had committed suicide were unemployed. That is an extremely serious statistic. Those people were very depressed because of the circumstances in which they had to live. Psychiatric problems obviously are another factor.

I would like to dwell for a moment on the prisons because that has not been dealt with so far. This is where we have the highest number of suicides, and the most accurate statistics. The recent report of the Advisory Group on Prisons was published in August 1991. Their figures were quite alarming. They found that, while the national average was nine per 100,000 of the population — taking the recorded figure and adding a 15 to 20 per cent increase to give it that conservative estimate — the current equivalent in the prisons was 143 per 100,000, in excess of 16 times the national average. Under any circumstances that can only be described as an alarming statistic. It confirms something I have been saying for years, that there has been an increase in the incidence of deaths in prison and that nothing has been done about it. In Scotland the comparative figure of 64 per 100,000 in prisons and in England and Wales 105, so we can see that the increase in Ireland is far in excess of that of any of the other countries, and the growth in the Irish prison system is far in excess of that in England, Wales or Scotland.

Let me give a couple of statistics in relation to those people who died in prisons over the last 16 years. Thirty five per cent of them were on remand. That means they were not convicted of any offence. Over one-third had been in for a short period. Seventy four per cent hanged themselves from prison bars. Of course there should have been some protection. Fifty seven per cent in Mountjoy, had psychiatric and/or drug abuse problems. Seventy per cent were under the age of 25, and 26 per cent had previously tried to take their own lives. Two thirds occurred between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. and two thirds again took place in the last six of the 16 years, which indicates the increasing incidence of deaths in prison, and seven out of the last 12 took place in Mountjoy in the last two years.

Obviously there is a serious problem of identification there. There is a cohort of people who are particularly at risk and we need to ensure that there are adequate medical services to assist those. The increasing problem of AIDS, the segregation, the stigma and the trauma that is associated with that has led to deaths that would probably not otherwise have occurred. We need a whole review of policy in relation to monitoring, identification and treatment. It is ironic that somebody who goes to prison because they are convicted of an offence end up with a sentence of death because of the circumstances in which they have been detained. That is another major reason why we should review our prison system. There certainly are categories of people for whom prison is totally unsuitable and for whom it is, in fact, a death sentence.

The Bill is very short, it is to the point and it does not require major changes to implement it. It can be implemented overnight without any difficulty. I would prefer if the Minister simply took it on board and introduced it rather than waiting for the more complex legislation the Minister has promised. I am not sure if he would have promised it if this Bill had not been put on the Order Paper. I congratulate Fine Gael and Senator Neville, in particular, for doing so.

It behoves us all, at this time in our society, to ensure that we establish a caring, and humane society. We have to show that by certain shifts in emphasis and priorities. The obvious shift in emphasis here is from the negative, punitive approach to what is essentially a social problem and a personality problem to a sympathetic, caring, medical and treatment approach.

The first step would be implementing this legislation to decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide and then provide a proper caring service to assist those who are at risk and to ensure that they are protected from circumstances that give rise to them taking their own lives, which is tragic for them, and their families.

While the concept of this Bill and its presentation here by Senator Neville and others from the Fine Gael Party is to be commended and is broadly acceptable the Government are preparing a Criminal Law Bill which incorporates the provisions set out in the Bill proposed here and, to a certain extent, there is overlapping.

Suicide was the ancient crime offelo de se in the old Roman and Greek laws and has existed from time immemorial. I would broadly agree with the speakers on the other side who have outlined many reasons why suicide should be decriminalised. As other speakers have said, suicide or attempted suicide when it hits one's parish or society is indeed very sad. In many ways it is much more tragic and traumatic than death in a car accident of some loved one or death by some disease such as cancer, etc., because there is always the question asked by next-of-kin, close relations, friends and neighbours was there any way this could have been avoided, and despite centuries of research by psychiatrists, psychologists, scientists, statisticians and medical experts of all sorts there seems to be no clear answer to the question why somebody should choose to take their own life or take it in conjunction with others.

The situation was dealt with in Great Britain around 1961 when legislation was introduced to decriminalise suicide, the Suicide Act, 1961. As in many other crimes the real victims of a suicide or attempted suicide are the family. In particular, if one is lucky enough to survive an attempt at taking one's own life, it has been rightly pointed out here by the Minister and is generally accepted that sympathy, compassion and, perhaps most often, medical assistance of one sort or another are required. There is a consensus among all parties that this support by society should be forthcoming.

Attempted suicide can be compared in one sense to a crime like bigamy. Even though it is on our Statute Book for several decades, to the best of my knowledge there has never been a prosecution of a bigamist in this country. It is another area of law reform that we should look at to see if it can be taken off our Statute Book.

There has been no prosecution for attempted suicide in this State since 1967, and that was an exception. The history of prosecution for attempted suicide has been very sparse, but that does not mean the tone and the basic tenets of the Bill are not without merit. This area should be rectified, sooner rather than later.

One of the problems I have come across as a practising solicitor in the last ten or 14 years is the plight of families, particularly where the member who has committed suicide is the breadwinner. When he is survived by a widow with a young family, or a brother, sister, son or daughter, there can be very serious problems, apart from the trauma of losing a loved one. I have come across three or four cases where, say, a man committed suicide and left a wife and young family but because there is an element of crime involved in a suicide, with certain life assurance companies the mortgage protection policy was not honoured. If he had a life policy and it was proved that he deliberately took his own life, there could be difficulties. This is an additional burden on the survivors. On a couple of occasions life assurance companies have taken a realistic view and paid on a life assurance or mortgage protection policy. These are aspects that one rarely thinks of but it is a situation where the surviving widow or widower may be in serious financial difficulties with a large overdraft or a big mortgage to pay off.

Senator Upton said there were various reasons a person would take his or her life. He mentioned problems of people in prison, unemployment and financial stress. There have been many demands from Senators on all sides for a debate on the banking system and the high interest rates charged.

I have come across instances where the fact that a farmer, fisherman or a business person is under severe financial pressure could be linked with either an attempt to commit suicide or the commission of the crime. There is no Member in this or the other House who has not come across a person who committed suicide. This is particularly sad and is a fact that is hard to come to grips with.

I have known people who never recovered from the tragedy of a family member or a close relative who committed suicide, ten 15 or 20 years ago. It is a very traumatic event and there is a stigma attached to it, especially in rural Ireland. I have not lived for very long in any urban area and I know the traumatic effect a suicide or attempted suicide can have on the family. Then there is the additional problem of a police investigation and thepost mortem examination. It is ludicrous, and it is not acceptable that this crime should remain on our Statute Book.

The Minister for Justice spoke here last week. I have found him to be a reforming Minister. He has great foresight and I accept his undertaking that currently his Department are preparing a criminal law Bill, which, among other things, deletes the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour and will encompass the changes being sought in this Bill.

I want to praise my colleagues on the other side for introducing this Bill and while the thrust of the Bill is generally acceptable to all sides of the House on the clear understanding from the Minister and the Department that the new criminal law Bill will be introduced soon. We are opposing it.

I urge the Minister and the Department not to put this aside but to take cognisance of what is being said here, and that the criminal law Bill will be with us early in the new year. Without any shadow of doubt there is a need to decriminalise what is known in legal studies asfelo de se. This crime must be removed from our Statute Book. It is with some regret that this side of the House will oppose the Bill, because of the oncoming criminal law Bill which will incorporate necessary reforming legislation and the concept of getting rid of this, in my view, outdated and unnecessary crime of suicide.

I am glad to be able to participate in this debate. I have a couple of main points to make but I doubt if I will be using all my time because a lot of what needed to be said has been said. However, I would like to disagree with the Government benches on one thing. I do not think their opposition to this Bill is quite as principled as they have made out. It is rather a pity that they were not able to accept this Bill and then, if they had some problems with it, to amend it.

We hear a lot about the democratic deficit; it has become the new buzz phrase. There is a democratic deficit and it is the refusal of Government, not just this Government but previous Governments, to allow this kind of participation by the Opposition in the creation of legislation. I very much regret that. It is a pity that we have this dog in the manger attitude that no worthwhile contribution to the legislative process can be directly made by any party, either in Opposition or in an independent system. I would like to point out that the role of Seanad Éireann is precisely to bring forward the kind of legislation Senator Neville has brought forward. It ought to be properly contained rather than being opposed in what I see as a dog in the manger attitude.

That said, I welcome the fact that there is an indication that this troubled subject will at last be tackled by the Government. It is absurd that suicide or attempted suicide should be regarded as a criminal offence. If somebody kills himself what do you do? How do you enforce the notion of criminality? James Joyce in Ulysses has the character Leopold Bloom, whose father committed suicide by swallowing aconite in the Queen's Hotel, in Ennis. The subject of suicide crops up in the Hades episode. Some unfortunate remarks are made and Bloom muses humanely about the barbarous custom of driving a stake through the heart of a suicide, "as if they were not dead already".

I also think it regrettable and indefensible to treat attempted suicide as a criminal offence. A person who attempts to commit suicide clearly is already in a distressed state and requires assistance, reassurance and professional help rather than being subjected to the odious attention of the law. I am glad this will be addressed.

I do not admire suicide. I do not want to be sentimental about it. I have known a number of people who committed suicide, none of them, that I can recall, for reasons of sexual orientation. In almost all cases, it was as a result of financial pressure. On two occasions the attentions of the Revenue Commissioners, as far as I know, precipitated this action. Extreme financial pressures can put somebody right over the edge and that is worth bearing in mind when one considers the present very difficult financial situation of many people. I do not admire suicide. I have no sentimental regard for people who commit suicide. It is an evasion of responsibility in certain cases. In some cases it is actually an honourable act but very frequently it is not. I also notice in a number of the cases of suicide with which I am familiar, a rather unfortunate element of revenge. This is the ultimate attack upon families, professional acquaintances and friends who are deemed by the subject of suicide to have let him or her down.

I am not prepared to condemn too strongly people who take this regrettable course of action. I believe in most cases the balance of the mind is probably disturbed and, if there are mixed emotions, one has to extend compassion to them. I am very glad this antiquated notion is ultimately to be addressed by the Government in their own way and time, in their own legislative form.

There is one principal drawback, in my opinion, to the Bill. As an Independent university Senator I have perhaps more room to manoeuvre on this than some of my colleagues who may feel themselves bound by the pressure of a conservative electorate. It is the question of criminalising anybody who, in any circumstances, assists another person to commit suicide. I oppose that section although I will support and vote for the Bill. I realise this is a dangerous area. It could be said to open the floodgates to euthanasia and in fact, not necessarily even to voluntary euthanasia. It could be involuntary. Unfortunate pressure could be brought to bear on people, particularly if there is a financial or other motive involved. I believe there are occasions on which, when a person is suffering from a serious, debilitating and painful illness, they have the right to take their life, at least to ensure that their end is decent, dignified and comfortable. To criminalise somebody who conscientiously gives any assistance whatever, in this matter, is a mistake. I say that knowing that people are concerned, and properly concerned, about possible abuse of any room for manoeuvre in this matter.

I have had experience, at one remove, of this situation. A close friend of mine — not in this country — nursed two people who had contracted the AIDS virus. He is not a nurse and is not professionally qualified in this area. This man is a very fastidious person who does not like dirt, discomfort, untidiness and so on, but our friend whom he was nursing contracted all the most unpleasant forms of infection, Kaposi's sarcoma and bouts of pneumocystis carinii. He ultimately developed dysentery, which meant he had to have nappy changes every hour. My friend was prepared to give up his job for six weeks to attend him in the process of his dying which he did with great discomfort and while the balance of his mind was certainly disturbed by AIDS dementia.

A year or two later another person we knew, a brilliant scholar and a sensitive sophisticated man, also came down with complications of AIDS. Again, my friend gave up his time to nurse him. The man who was dying had a very clear mind, a very shrewd intellect, and he indicated right from the beginning that a time would come when he could no longer bear the pain and the indignity of the disease. He would know, himself, when he wished to end his struggle for survival. However, when the time came, despite the fact that he had all the preparations, he was too weak physically to administer what was medically necessary to accomplish this objective. In fact, he was drowning. His lungs had filled with liquid and he was suffering the appalling torture of being conscious while drowning in the fluids of his own body. He begged my friend to give him a sleeping draught and then to administer whatever was necessry to allow him to pass from this life in dignity, without going thrugh this awful struggle. His life was shortened, I have been told as a medical estimate, by three to four days. My friend, for whom I have the greatest affection, regard and admiration assisted this other man in accomlishing this. I cannot regard that as a criminal act. I do not believe he should have been prosecuted: in fact he was not. There was some publicity, subsequently, in the country where it occurred. There were some vague admonitions and threats but nothing ever came of it.

All I can say is I would not have had the courage to do that. I do not have the capacity to take another person's life. I have never, thank God, been faced with that proposition but, where there is anguish, suffering, discomfort and loss of dignity and where a person has made a rational decision not to continue this obscene attempt at living, I do not believe that somebody who assists them is acting in other than a compassionate way, nor do I believe they should be subjected to the criminal law.

Having said that, I am well aware of the wonderful work done by the hospice movement and, in particular, in the hospice at Harold's Cross. A member of the university catering staff of Trinity College was taken there some years ago with terminal cancer and I visited her there. I do not think she ever had such a good time. It sounds an almost absurd, silly thing to say, but she was certainly enabled, because of the remarkable care provided for her there, to continue living right to the end. Where a person can continue to have a quality of life right to the end that is what everyone would want but it is not easy to stand idly by and watch somebody you care for, somebody for whom you entertained deep affection of love, whose body struggles to continue although the spirit desperately wishes to be released.

The Bill seems to have two parts, first of all decriminalising the act of suicide and then recriminalising any assistance to suicide. I do not wish to make an argument for wholesale euthanasia. After all, I come from a minority which in the 1939-45 period was gassed in the German Reich. I also recall very vividly how the programme started off with an attempt to tidy up the whole German social scene by liquidating people who were regarded as uncomfortable elements, such as the seriously ill, the mentally handicapped and so on. I do not regard that as euthanasia at all. I congratulate Senator Neville on having brought forward this Bill. It is a most important subject. I will vote for it although I have reservations. I do not wish to make my point in any sensational way but I cannot give full assent to the wholesale criminalising of any person who assists another human being in ending their life with dignity.

I am delighted to speak on this subject. I agree with Senator Norris that it is a very important matter. It is something we all come into contact with — hopefully as little as possible. I congratulate Senator Neville on bringing forward this Bill. It is a very simple Bill but is an excellent one. This subject needed to be spoken about because people are uncomfortable and uneasy with it, especially when it relates to a member of the family or a friend. Many of us have attended a funeral of someone we knew who unfortunately, for one reason or another had committed suicide and have asked ourselves if we could have helped the person or stopped them committing suicide. There is a great feeling of helplessness. For families directly involved it must be an extremely difficult time. I was at a funeral recently of a man who had committed suicide. His family and children were there and it was one of the most moving funerals I ever attended. It was particularly difficult for his young family and for everyone involved. He was an extremely popular man and, completely out of the blue, nobody knows why, he committed suicide. He was a very active man in his own locality and it was a huge shock. Hopefully, his family and friends will get over it.

There are, I gather, approximately 1,000 suicides per year in Ireland and that is increasing every year. In fact, it is increasing all over the Western world especially among young people. It is particularly sad that young people, seeing no future for themselves, not alone attempt to commit suicide but succeed. Suicide is increasing all over the world; but in Ireland it is higher in rural areas. When you live in a city you always feel that people in the country live a very healthy life, but for some reason in Ireland there seems to be a higher level of suicide in rural areas as opposed to the city. This should be examined by qualified people to find the reason behind it.

If we look back over civilisations in various countries we find it has been the subject of rules and regulations in the past. In Roman times if you wanted to commit suicide you had to ask the Senate for permission to do so. I hope that will never be extended to Ireland. It would get a unanimous thumbs down. Gaelic civilisation and early Irish law were against the idea of suicide. People often think that Christianity civilised Ireland, but the ancient Irish laws were strongly against suicide. In recent times, we have all avoided talking about suicide. It has been covered up by a great silence. Bringing forward a Bill like this will lift silence which will be a relief for people directly connected with anybody who has committed suicide. That is good and should be welcomed.

Ireland is supposed to have one of the lowest rates of suicide, but I am told that is perhaps because of the Coroners Act, 1962, which makes it difficult for a coroner to say that somebody has committed suicide. The Garda Síochána must verify the suicide, I believe. Research in the seventies and eighties has shown that the actual rate of suicide may be twice or three times the official rate. There has been recent research on the subject. I would like the higher level of suicide in rural areas to be examined.

I congratulate Senator Neville on his great initiative in bringing this Bill forward. Its purpose is simple. It provides that it should no longer be a criminal act to commit suicide or attempt to commit suicide. The successful suicide, of course, puts himself or herself beyond the reach of the law. A law that says such a person could be charged with the crime would be regarded as silly if it were not so tragic. It is a bad law and on that ground alone should be repealed. Because suicide is a crime it follows that an attempt to commit suicide is also a crime and is punishable by law. Studies have shown that people commit suicide for many reasons which could be medical. Although it has been years since anybody has been charged with committing suicide, it seems incredible that they could be charged while they have a medical problem which can be proved by doctors to exist.

The time has come for this crime to be abolished. This Bill could start a social and educational process on suicide where people would learn more about it and understand it better. The whole stigma and shame could be lifted and people would be more sympathetic and more Christian in their attitude towards those involved. I am delighted that the Minister has promised to introduce a Bill shortly. I understand it is to be a more comprehensive Bill. I am sure it will be so since he is a very good and reforming Minister, as everyone will agree. Much of his legislation has been excellent in this area and I would go along with him. I hope Senator Neville will accept the word the Minister has given in the House and that he will not divide the House on this matter, because he has unanimous support and agreement.

Over the last few weeks in the debates on reforming the Seanad many Senators have expressed frustration. Perhaps this Bill will not be accepted, I am not saying that in the reform of the Seanad Private Members Bills should be accepted, but Senator Neville has certainly pushed this topic up the ladder. We are much closer to having a Bill introduced by the Government. In that way he has done a good day's work and I would like to congratulate him on the Bill.

Professor Tom Fahy, Professor of Psychiatry at University College Galway, has said:

Suicide is nothing if it is not a tragedy. It is not a scandal. It is scandalous to regard it as so. We should not, of course, encourage it, but it must be decriminalised. Until this is done we cannot overcome the stigma conferred on families.

It is in that context that I warmly welcome this Bill whose purpose is to provide that it shall no longer be a criminal act, subject to the machinery and the sanctions of the criminal law, to commit suicide or to attempt to commit suicide. I hope the passage of this legislation will achieve three things: provide compassion, understanding and assitance; help to protect society; and, above all, uphold the sanctity of human life. The passing of this legislation will, as many Senators have indicated, herald the end of a long chapter in our law. It will mean that we will shortly join the rest of the civilised world in removing suicide and attempted suicide from the list of crimes in this country. There are sound reasons for abolishing the crime of suicide, because the suicide is beyond the reach of punishment. The legal sanction, in my view, is not an effective deterrent. The effect of the law is merely to add to the distress and pain of the relatives and friends of the bereaved.

The background to this offence goes back many years in our case. It was King Edgar who, nearly 1,000 years ago, decreed that it was a common law crime for a man to take his own life, denied him burial rights and laid down that all his goods were to be forfeited. Members of this House will remember the grave digger's scene inHamlet and how Shakespeare put certain words into the grave digger's mouth when he said “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?”. There was a great case on which Shakespeare founded the scene of Ophelia, the case in which Sir James Hale threw himself into the River Canterbury. The question arose in that case as to whether his widow was entitled to the lease of the Graveney Marshes on his death. We are told that the judges held that the widow was not so entitled and that it want to the Crown. Forfeiture existed until 1870, when it was abolished. The consequences were even more important and serious where the attempted suicide failed. Thus if X attempted suicide and failed, X was guilty of the misdemeanour of attempted suicide. Furthermore if X, in attempting to commit suicide, in fact killed Y, the doctrine of transferred malice applied and X was guilty of murder.

It seems to me that we can all agree, and I am delighted to see such unanimity in this House, that suicide and attempted suicide have none of the characteristics of criminal conduct. On the contrary it can be said that they are very often a sign that medical and social help is needed. The real basis therefore of this Bill is that, in the humane outlook of today, it is recognised that those who attempt suicide unsuccessfully are in need of spiritual, pastoral and medical assistance and not punishment. I therefore welcome the provisions in section 1 of this Bill, based on similar wording which has worked very well, in the United Kingdom Suicide Act, 1961, which provides that "the rule of law, whereby it is a crime for a person to commit suicide, is hereby abrogated". There is fine clarity in that legislation and I think that we would do well to imitate it. This section implies that attempted suicide is no longer a criminal offence and that the effect of the doctrine of transferred malice will no longer have application in this case.

Section 2 of this Bill, as section 2 of the United Kingdom Suicide Act, 1961, deals with criminal liability for complicity in another's suicide. I can see where Senator Norris has reservations in regard to the provisions contained in this section. On the other hand, if he examines it more closely, he will see the need for it. The moral culpability of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, varies widely. The assistance may be no more than providing at the earnest entreaty of the sufferer drugs for a person who is suffering from a very painful and incurable illness. At the other extreme, however, the person assisting may have advised and assisted the suicide from whose death he derives property or financial advantage. Thus we must, in my view contrary to what Senator Norris has said, ensure that complicity in the attempted or successful suicide of another does not cease to be a crime. The two cases which have dealt extensively with this are Rv. McShane (1977) and R v. Robey (1979). However, in order to achieve consistency in the bringing of prosecutions, it seems to me — and I would advocate this to the Minister and to Senator Neville — that a further subsection should be included in section 1 of this Bill as was done in the UK legislation, to the effect that the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions should be required in the bringing of prosecutions.

This legislation should deal also with the important question of suicide pacts, as is done in the UK by section 4 of the Homicide Act, 1957, as amended by the Suicide Act, 1961. The circumstances in which these pacts are undertaken are various and the motives which lead two or more people to conclude that this tragic course is the only solution to their problems may be no less sincere and their distress may be just as great as in the case of suicide or attempted suicide. However, a pretended suicide pact may provide a means for an unscrupulous person to rid himself of another from whom he has become estranged for example, or from whose death he hopes to take advantage. We must therefore, in my view, provide adequate legal sanctions to deal with such a person. That is why I would suggest that the whole question of suicide pacts should be included here also.

It is to be regretted, as most Senators have done, that the law in this country places us almost alone in the civilised world in making suicide and attempted suicide a criminal offence. Therefore, I warmly welcome the objectives of this Bill and I congratulate Senator Neville, who is the Fine Gael spokesman on Justice and Law Reform on introducing this Bill into this House. I also welcome the unanimous approach of all Senators and I hope the Minister and the Government will waste no time in ensuring that this legislation becomes law. I would have preferred if there had been a separate Bill dealing with suicide and related matters, the question of complicity and the question of suicide pacts, but I do not agree with the Minister that it is necessary to deal with this matter in a comprehensive piece of legislation. I warmly welcome the principles enshrined in this Bill.

Mr. Farrell

Like many Senators, I agree with the sentiments of the Bill. This is something we must regard very seriously. Some coroners say we have not true statistics on this matter and that possibly there are many more cases. I would argue there could be fewer. Very often in the case of a genuine accident involving one person people will often think that suicide is involved and that might not necessarily be the case. It is very difficult to get true statistics on suicides.

In the west a few years ago the incidence of suicide was fairly high among the older generation and people said it happened to old bachelors living on their own and suffering from loneliness. Now it seems to have gone the full circle and youth are involved. We hear the old story again — bad housing, wrong environment, unemployment and so on. The same explanation is trotted out for all our problems. I do not think that is so. If you take any community where 95 per cent are doing very well and living in the ordinary way, but there is a small percentage who do not live in that way, why should they be affected and nobody else? I do not think those are reasons for suicide.

I believe suicide stems from a mental problem. We have had more suicides since mental hospitals adopted what is known as the revolving door system whereby patients are in and out. They are not kept in as was the case in years gone by. Some psychiatrists say that if people are that way inclined they will commit suicide anyway and there is no point in trying to prevent it. We need a better psychiatric examination of people who are at risk and they should be kept under care.

In so far as the Bill is concerned, I do not think suicide should be treated as a crime. Action can be only taken in the case of attempted suicide; and how do you prove it was not an accident? I often think of the morning I had a bad shotgun accident. If I had blown off my head, what might people have said? The Minister and his advisers know the seriousness of the subject and the problems that are involved. He is bringing in a more comprehensive Bill and we should wait until it is introduced and then discuss it in detail. In that way we will get the best legislation.

I welcome the Bill. I sincerely hope we will not have a vote on this issue. We all agree with the sentiments expressed, but we do not agree with the way being adopted at present. I believe the Minister and his advisers have the proper Bill and when it comes to the House we will all welcome it and support it.

I wish to put on the record of the House my personal appreciation of and congratulations to Senator Neville for initiating this Bill and bringing it before the House. I know, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, you have a personal interest in Seanad reform and nothing will so adequately reform the Seanad than this kind of initiative, people bringing in legislation like this. For that reason the Bill is welcome, but not just for that reason alone. That in itself is meritorious — that people are initiating legislation and bringing Bills before the House — but there is extra merit in this instance in what is involved.

All of us in our capacity as public representatives and indeed as members of society have had the dreadful experience at some stage of coming in contact with a suicide case. The last speaker mentioned that suicides are emerging as quite common among young people now. We all know of exam-related and stress-related suicides among young people. We know of suicides associated with chronic unemployment, with alcoholism, with substance abuse of various sorts. We know of suicides arising from generic or psychiatric conditions that are outside the control of the human being. A suicide is a horrendous happening. It is a tragic event for the family, such a futile end to life. We know that, but it is important that we, as legislators, recognise that by going a stage further and by ensuring that we decriminalise it.

I strongly agree with Senator Kennedy's earlier observation that people who for lack of proper motive have complicity in a suicide would have to be brought to justice and such an act would have to be deemed to be criminal. Senator Kennedy delineated a number of cases where this might arise through personal greed or whatever. Obviously those are criminal situations and we could not possibly decriminalise complicity. I am referring to somebody who would have been encouraging a suicide, assisting in the process or ensuring the appropriate conditions for a suicide.

We are all quick to say we have a great Christian country. We have great Christian traditions and we have much individual and collective goodwill displayed in many ways, particularly when natural disasters arise, in the kind of response we have to appeals and so on. But I would put this point on record: sometimes we confuse our Christianity and we miss the essence of Christianity. The essence of Christianity must ultimately be a sensitivity to the human condition, a caring approach to a situation. Nothing could be more Christian for this Legislature than to adopt legislation of this sort because in this measure we are making a positive moral statement. For that reason I commend the legislation strongly to the House. What it simply seeks to achieve is this: that a dreadful human tragedy, often having its origin or cause in social deprivation — a tragedy which is complete and total for the family unit and the relatives — is not further compounded. No matter how we might apply the law, its existence is enough to be insensitive and it must be removed. For that reason I support the legislation and put that on the record of the House. I appeal to everyone in this House to see this as a worthwhile initiative and to give it the necessary support later tonight.

First, I compliment Senator Neville on bringing forward this Bill in Private Members' Time. It is an area that I have been extremely concerned about over a long period. As a teacher dealing with young people, I recognise the tremendous pressures on young people today and all that goes with that. I think we all have experience of young people who, unfortunately, for one reason or another have committed suicide. I would be most concerned with the effect of this on the families and relations, the trauma and devastation it causes. I do not think we can readily understand what that entails unless we are misfortunate enough to be associated with it in some way.

Senators on all sides of the House have said that the legislation as it exists at the moment is to an extent ridiculous, because how can you criminalise the committing of suicide since the person concerned is, unfortunately, already dead? I am of the view that those who for whatever reason commit suicide are not fully in command of their senses. If you could look inside their minds you would find that if they were given a second chance many of them would change their attitudes. From time to time we all use the expression "I feel like committing suicide" and that sort of thing. We are all under such tremendous pressure that from time to time life really gets us down. There are, unfortunately, a number of people who just cannot take the pressure any longer. We have to understand that. We have to acknowledge that the families concerned need every support and facility the State can put at their disposal to cope with this absolutely horrific situation.

In acknowledging the concern of Senator Neville and his party in bringing forward this legislation I recognise what the intentions were, but I know the Minister is in the process of bringing forward more comprehensive Government legislation dealing with this issue. The fact that Senator Neville has highlighted these problems has focused the minds of this House and of the public on them. Therefore, I compliment him, but in view of the delicate circumstances surrounding these tragedies and now that this has been aired in public, I ask him to await the legislation to be introduced by the Minister. I can assure Senator Neville that he will be very pleased with that legislation.

First, I wish to thank the Senators who contributed to the debate and the Minister for his attention. I welcome the discussion and the informed opinion of the Members who contributed.

I was interested in Senator McKenna's concern about the level of suicide among young people. It is interesting that the 1990 official figures show that 56 people under the age of 25 committed suicide, 24 of whom were teenagers. In 1970 just nine people under the age of 25 committed suicide, one of whom was a teenager. When underreporting of suicide is taken into consideration the true figure for people under 25 who committed suicide is in the region of 160, 70 of whom were teenagers. This growth in the incidence of suicide has gone unnoticed by officialdom. Practically no resources have been allocated either to understand or control the problem. The incidence of suicide is increasing. This has been established. Does anybody care? When will Irish society confront what is a growing social disease and public health problem?

Last year 311 people officially — the true figure is in the region of 1,000 — committed suicide. These are criminals under Irish law. This legal farce should stop. It is time suicide was brought out of the Department of Justice and became the responsibility of the Department of Health, where is belongs. It is time we stopped referring to a person as having "committed" suicide and properly refer to a person as having "suffered" suicide.

Fine Gael have endeavoured to open the debate on the issue by asking the Seanad to decriminalise suicide. Such an approach is a prerequisite to any sane, rational and compassionate approach to those who commit or attempt to commit suicide and the understanding of the special bereavement problems of families and friends of the victims.

The pressures of modern day living have changed our society. The pressure to succeed or avoid failure in the eyes of our peers predominates. We set standards and expectations for our young people that place extreme pressure on them. The crazy education points system, the drive to succeed at school and college and the pressure to obtain employment set goals which are sometimes perceived as unobtainable. The fear of failure can place enormous pressure on young people. Are our value systems changing to a degree that life is unbearable for those who cannot achieve our sometimes unrealistic goals? We need urgent research into the dramatic increase in suicide and attempted suicide among all age groups, especially among the young.

The fact that suicide is regarded in law as a criminal offence is highly distressful for the bereaved. It is a disgrace that the State still regards suicide as a crime. The Minister should have used the opportunity given by Fine Gael to end this barbaric and stupid law.

Bereavement for accidental or natural death rarely necessitates counselling because there is an obvious reason for the loss, however tragic, of a loved one. Loss of a loved one by suicide is different. The family are inevitably subjected to investigation by police, coroners and insurance agents. Because there is still a stigma attached to suicide, there is often less support for the survivors in a situation where more support is needed. The first and most notable reaction of the bereaved is that of guilt. There is a tendency to blame oneself. This is compounded by denial, shame, an avoidance of communication and a withdrawal from normal social relationships. Concealment of the fact seems more preferable than the awkwardness that the discussion of the suicide may bring. Another common reaction is anger. The deliberateness of the act focuses anger on the deceased, as already mentioned in the debate. "Why did he do this to me and my children?" is a natural reaction.

There is a search for meaning, to understand what happened, to introduce logic into a situation. Natural or accidental death can be dealt with by saying "His or her time had come" or that "God called him or her". But suicide raises many questions. Was the victim's mind unstable? Was his or her death a sin? Is he or she damned? What were his thoughts? Is he a criminal?

The suicide survivor often searches for a scapegoat. If the victim was attending a doctor, was the doctor to blame? Was he on drugs? Was the suicide the result of drugs? If he was an alcoholic, was the alcohol to blame?

The bereaved by suicide need access to a counselling or support service. This is not available except for a dedicated number of committed people in the higher population centres. The Department of Health and the health boards should have the expertise and resources to have a counselling service both for those who attempt to commit suicide and those who are bereaved as a result of suicide.

In most cases those who attempt suicide, if hospitalised, are given a quick psychiatric assessment and returned to the community. The attitude of the hospital to such people reflects the attitude of the community in general. They are taking up a bed for somebody who is genuinely ill. They are taking up scarce medical resources required for people who are in need of these. This is only a symptom of the ignorance of society to the social disease and even pathological disease that suicide and attempted suicide are.

What is required is an intensive programme of education and discussion to change outmoded and medieval attitudes to the problem. The Legislature must lead on this. This is one of the purposes of the Bill. Society must realise that this is a social disease, a disease that is growing substantially in occurrence. We must treat it and we must acknowledge the relationship between suicide rates and the levels of unemployment. We must realise that a changing society, a society that is more secular and less cohesive, will have an increase in suicide rates. We must understand the problem.

People who become suicidal must know that they are not alone, that help is available, that their feeling of extreme despair is at most a transitory emotion, that society recognises their position as a health problem which can be treated. To get to this stage needs an intensive educational programme which must not be delayed. We must develop anti-suicide programmes. In the US there are suicide prevention packages in schools. This may be a bit extreme. It is certainly light years away in the Irish context and may be unacceptable anyway.

I would like to deal briefly with Senator Norris's worries about section 2, the criminalising of the aiding, abetting and counselling of suicide. I believe nothing should undermine the sanctity of human life or the general view that suicide is a dreadful offence of nature. I understand and appreciate Senator Norris's concerns and I have discussed this with him. If section 2 of the Bill were omitted it would be legal to aid, abet or counsel the suicide of another; it would, in fact, legalise euthanasia. This would have serious implications for society and the caring professions in particular. How could doctors and nurses rehabilitate people who attempt to commit suicide if beneath the surface they countenance these behaviours? If this were accepted it is not far fetched to envisage a time when the cost of maintaining and preserving life is too great, particularly when the individual is no longer productive. If doctors enter into the business of assisting suicide and if the treatment of the chronically disabled is seen by people as being an unproductive loss of societys' resources, they may also find means to reward surreptitiously those professionals who put a medical sample on the despatch of the disagreeable. Relatives and beneficiaries of the deceased may have much to gain by inducing this medical approach for the convenient death of their potential benefactors. While Senator Norris in no way suggested that this would be the case, the opening of the floodgates could lead inevitably to this situation. Once you break the barriers it is very hard to stop the water coming through.

I would now like to deal with euthanasia and what has transpired in the Netherlands. A recent Dutch Government study of euthanasia practices in the Netherlands shows that more than 1,000 patients experienced involuntary euthanasia last year. The Remmelink Commission report, headed by the Attorney General of the Dutch Supreme Court, shows the failure of the Dutch experiment with euthanasia. Although euthanasia and assisted suicides are technically illegal in the Netherlands, court decisions since 1973 have given physicians broad discretion in judging whether to take such actions. About 200 cases of euthanasia are reported each year, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice. The Remmelink report showed that there were 2,340 cases of voluntary euthanasia, 390 of assisted suicide and 1,040 of "life-terminating acts without explicit and persistent requests". There is a danger in opening the floodgates and that is why we put in that section to prevent this happening.

I wish to thank the Minister for Justice for his remarks, for agreeing with the principle of the Bill and for recognising that the approach often adopted by Governments that a Bill is flawed does not apply in these circumstances. I am disappointed that he did not accept the Bill and allow Second Stage to go through and introduce the amendments on Committe Stage. To do so would show that Members of Seanad Éireann could play a direct role in initiating law reform and open a debate on a very sensitive and heretofore taboo area. To do so would have enhanced the status of the Seanad and would have introduced réal Seanad reform at a time when this issue is being debated by the House.

I am disappointed that this measure, which has not taken up Government time, was not allowed to go through. The decriminalising of suicide has passed through other European Parliaments in a matter of hours. The remaining Stages need not have taken up much of Government time. The measure could have been brought through both Houses by Christmas, a time when there is a high incidence of suicide. It is disappointing that this is not the case. The promise of legislation, while welcome, is not a substitute. Too many such promises have not materialised. As the Minister recognised, proposals to abolish suicide as a crime were made in 1967, the same year when the last prosecution for attempted suicide was brought before the courts. I am now asking Seanad Éireann to accept this Bill at Second Stage and at last to do something positive to eliminate suicide as a social scandal. There are no winners or losers in this issue. We are just asking the Legislature and society to commence the recognition of suicide for what is is — a public health problem and not a stigma on either the victims, the attempted suicides or their families.

As it is 8 o'clock I must put the question "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

On a point of order, before we proceed it is important we note that tonight the Union Jack flies over Government Buildings. We should welcome that fact, and I think Senator Honan would welcome it in particular.

Senator Honan does not welcome it.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 24.

  • Cosgrave, Liam.
  • Doyle, Avril.
  • Howard, Michael.
  • Jackman, Mary.
  • Kennedy, Patrick.
  • McDonald, Charlie.
  • Manning, Maurice.
  • Naughten, Liam.
  • Neville, Daniel.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Toole, Joe.
  • Raftery, Tom.
  • Ross, Shane P.N.
  • Staunton, Myles.
  • Upton, Pat.


  • Bennett, Olga.
  • Bohan, Eddie.
  • Byrne, Seán.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Dardis, John.
  • Fallon, Seán.
  • Farrell, Willie.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzgerald, Tom.
  • Foley, Denis.
  • Haughey, Seán F.
  • Honan, Tras.
  • Hussey, Thomas.
  • Kiely, Dan.
  • Kiely, Rory.
  • Lydon, Don.
  • McKenna, Tony.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • ÓCuív, Éamon.
  • O'Donovan, Denis A.
  • O'Keeffe, Batt.
  • Ormonde, Donal.
  • Ryan, Eoin David.
  • Wright, G.V.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Cosgrave and Neville; Níl, Senators Wright and Fitzgerald.
Question declared lost.

When is it proposed to sit again?

We will sit at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.