Michelle Carter case is the next step in the increasing normalization of suicide

Time was when you were supposed to try to talk someone out of suicide, even physically prevent them from trying

Read the article by Andrew Coyne at the National Post

Michelle Carter met Conrad Roy on a trip to Florida in 2012. The two Boston-area teenagers saw each other occasionally afterwards; mostly they exchanged emails and text messages. Roy was popular, an honours student, athletic. But he suffered from depression and anxiety disorders and had previously attempted suicide.

In the spring of 2014 he began having similar thoughts. Carter initially told him to seek treatment, but at some point in July decided he would be better off dead. Over the last two weeks of his life she sent him dozens of texts encouraging him to kill himself (“You always say you’re gonna do it, but you never do… You just need to do it”), including helpful tips on how it might be done.

On the night of July 12 Roy attached a hose to the exhaust of his pickup truck, fed the other end into the cab, and got in. She listened on the phone as he took his last gasps. Tellingly, when he briefly had second thoughts and got out of the truck, she told him to get back in. A Massachusetts court convicted her earlier this month of involuntary manslaughter.

The verdict will undoubtedly be appealed, and raises many issues. She was only 17 at the time, had her own history of psychological troubles, and was on a drug that might have made her delusional. Her degree of responsibility for his decision will also be debated, as will the appropriateness of the involuntary manslaughter charge.

But I was most struck by the response of an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who was concerned the case might have a chilling effect on free speech, for example on discussions between a couple, “should one spouse convince the other to commit suicide.”

The normalization of suicide continues apace. Time was when you were supposed to try to talk someone out of suicide, even physically prevent them from trying, especially a young person in a psychologically vulnerable, not to say irrational, state.

But now? Surely what Carter did to — for — Roy was nothing more than assist in his death. He was suffering. She offered relief from suffering. He was unable to go through with it. She helped him — not physically, to be sure, but arguably in a more profound way.

Oh but this is nothing like assisted suicide, is it? It will be objected that Roy was not suffering from an incurable disease; that he was not near the end of his natural life; that he was not in unendurable physical pain; that he was not in his right mind; that she was not a doctor. And if you think those are telling objections you have not been paying attention to the debate.

There was a time when that was what this was about. That was what the Sue Rodriguez case, and others like it, entailed: a patient who was in the worst sort of physical pain, on the road to an inevitable, if not immediate death. Yet though she was legally entited to take her own life, she was physically incapable of doing so, by virtue of the same crippling disease that was slowly killing her.

Others, not yet in that situation, but fearing they soon would be, were faced with a cruel dilemma: that if they did not kill themselves now, while they were still able to but were deriving some enjoyment from life, they might find themselves unable to do so in future. That’s where the claim to the right to assistance from another person came in. That’s what we thought we were getting into. That’s what many people may still think is the issue.

But it soon became clear that it could not be limited to that, or at any rate would not be. Once you had defined suicide as, not a tragedy to be prevented, but a relief to be provided, then all of the careful limitations its advocates assured us would be placed around it were sure to fall away.

The Supreme Court started the process, overturning its own previous ruling in the Rodriguez case. Though the Court invoked the same “cruel choice” described above, it did not attach any of the usual stipulations in granting the right to an “assisted death”: neither that the would-be suicide’s condition be terminal, nor that he be in acute physical pain, nor that he be unable to kill himself. All that was required was that the condition be “grievous and irremediable,” the pain, of whatever kind, “intolerable to the individual.”

Still, the court did at least insist that the patient be a mentally competent adult, as did the government in drafting the law that followed. But it was clear these conditions would be no more likely to survive than the rest. If, after all, relief from suffering were the issue, then what monster would condemn a child to the sort of intolerable pain, physical or psychological, from which an adult would be spared? Why, likewise, should mere mental incapacity be an obstacle? If consent were in doubt, surely the consent of a guardian would be sufficient.

 

And, indeed, from the moment the law was passed — indeed, from the moment the Court’s ruling was handed down — that is what advocates have taken to arguing. Not a week goes by without some piece in the press calling for the remaining limits on death on demand to be relaxed, or fretting that not everyone will have “access” to the service. It is the same progression, if at rather a more rapid pace, as earlier witnessed in the Netherlands and Belgium — an eventuality that was predicted, but waved away by the Court.

So we should not be surprised to find where this line of thinking has led us lately, what troubles our consciences most now: not only that those already determined to kill themselves might be prevented from having others help them, but that others might be prevented from convincing them to do it.