The contemporary approach to suicide prevention relies primarily on involuntary commitment of the suicidal individual. While there is generally widespread acceptance of the principle of society's right, even its moral obligation, to intervene to prevent a suicide, there is much less agreement concerning the conditions under which such an action should proceed. Most of the debate centers on the widely applied commitment criteria of mental illness and dangerousness to self and others. Questions have also been raised regarding the efficacy of commitment as a preventive measure. In this paper, these controversies are placed in a broader historical context. We examine empirical evidence concerning prevailing commitment criteria and the prophylactic value of involuntary hospitalization, and discuss the appropriateness of our current approach to civil commitment in light of existing data.