Michelle Carter and the case against assisted suicide

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/08/michelle-carter-and-the-case-against-assisted-suicide/

Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Massachusetts?

Some say the measure helps people seeking to avoid a painful death, others believe unintended consequences could easily arise when insurers are left to choose expensive, life-prolonging treatments or cheap, fatal drugs. What do you believe?




Michelle Carter, the 18-year-old Massachusetts girl who repeatedly encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide, knew that the text messages she sent to Conrad Roy III would incriminate her if found by the police.

That’s why she asked Roy to delete the messages before taking his life. And that’s why she worried that police would find the messages.

“[If the police] read my messages with him I’m done,” she texted a friend after Roy’s death, “I can go to jail.”

Police did find the messages, in which Carter repeatedly told Roy to stop making “excuses” and just “do it,” and Carter now faces manslaughter charges for her alleged role in the death.

The prosecution is not without controversy. Carter’s lawyers claim that the Commonwealth may not punish her because Roy’s own actions were the proximate cause of his death and because the relevant legal precedents were decided in the 19th century when suicide was a crime.

But suicide remains a crime today, albeit a crime that is no longer punished by law. At the time of the American founding, English common law required that suicide be punished by forfeiture of the deceased’s assets and ignominious burial. Although the American states eliminated these harsh punishments, all of the states, including Massachusetts, preserved the English common law in large part, including common law crimes such as suicide.

Even Michelle Carter seems to have understood that encouraging someone to take his own life is a crime.

The common law declares suicide and homicide mala in se: offenses that are inherently criminal, even without any statute making them so, and even if no punishment is specified for their commission. Thus, as the U.S. Supreme Court explained in the 1997 case Washington v. Glucksberg, our jurisprudence recognizes that suicide is a crime, even though it not (and should not be) one that is punishable by law.

But because suicide is a crime, assisting a suicide is also a crime. So, the Commonwealth need not prove that Carter was the immediate cause of Roy’s death. It would be enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she intended to assist his suicide and that she did so.

Unlike a person who takes his or her own life, a person who assists a suicide deserves not sympathy, but moral condemnation and punishment. Conrad Roy clearly suffered great emotional anguish, so he and his family deserve our compassion. Michelle Carter took advantage of Roy’s vulnerability and, therefore, deserves both moral disapprobation and criminal sanction.

The political undertones of the Carter case can, of course, be heard on Beacon Hill, where Massachusetts legislators are considering a proposal to eliminate from law the long-standing prohibition against assisting another’s suicide. If enacted, this proposal would allow doctors and other medical professionals to take the same actions for which the Commonwealth today (rightly) prosecutes Michelle Carter — encouraging those whose trust they enjoy to kill themselves, and furnishing the means to do so.

Like Conrad Roy, patients who ask doctors to help them commit suicide deserve our sympathy, and they deserve treatment, both for their physical pain and for their emotional suffering. A study conducted by the Royal College of Physicians in 2006 revealed that between 98 percent and 99 percent of suicidal patients will change their minds and choose life after being treated for depression. Suicidal people should be affirmed and aided in their fight to live, not given drugs to kill themselves.

Proposals to legalize assisted suicide would allow doctors and other medical professionals to take the same actions for which the Commonwealth today (rightly) prosecutes Michelle Carter.

The criminal prohibitions against killing and helping others to kill are important acknowledgements of the sanctity of human life. The prohibition against assisted killing does not require medical professionals to prolong suffering needlessly or to keep patients alive at all costs. The law protects both the inviolability of human life and the liberty of patients to refuse unwanted medical treatment. It thus respects patient autonomy and prevents doctors from becoming people who choose death over life.

Michelle Carter’s texts to her friend in the aftermath of Conrad Roy’s suicide suggest that she understood her actions to be criminal. At the very least, she understood that encouraging and helping someone to commit suicide is immoral. Let’s hope that the Massachusetts legislature understands that as well and does not alter the law to allow others to assist the vulnerable in ending their lives.

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