The decriminalisation of suicide
This thesis examines the passage of the Act which decriminalised suicide in England and Wales in 1961. Although often listed with other reforms of the period under the label "permissive", empirical evidence reveals this to be a serious misreading of what the Suicide Act was actually designed to accomplish. This thesis argues that, far from the decriminalisation being a relinquishing of state control over a deviant behaviour, the Suicide Act - which was a government, not a Private Member's Bill - stands as an unusually explicit example of a transfer of responsibility for control of a deviant behaviour from criminal justice to medical jurisdiction in the interests of establishing more effective control. Further, the thesis argues that the passage was only possible because of a unique and short-lived conjunction of structure and agency. The long positivist trend towards re-defining deviancy as a medical, not a moral, matter was at its peak in the late 1950s, at a time when the upheavals of war and unprecedented affluence had created a climate conducive to social change. However these conditions, while necessary, were not sufficient to effect the passage of the Act. Suicide law reform was not a matter of popular concern and the profound moral and religious implications of suicide itself made it the kind of sensitive subject governments generally leave to private members. Drawing on cabinet and government papers now available, and on interviews with key participants in the passage of the Act, this thesis seeks to demonstrate that suicide would not have been decriminalised without the actions of three very specific human agents, and at the same time to show how these actions were shaped by, and their success dependent upon, structural elements that both constrained and guided them.