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The Exit Internationalist

June 25, 2017

Euthanasia by Text? Michelle Carter Case Impacts More than Free Speech

Philip Nitschke, Sydney Morning Herald

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Michelle Carter after Judge Lawrence Moniz found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of Conrad Roy III.

Michelle Carter after Judge Lawrence Moniz found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of Conrad Roy III. Photo: Glenn Silva

On the facts, Roy killed himself. He was not with Carter. She did not help him prepare for his death. What she did do was text him, not once, but often. Was Carter a good person on the night of Roy’s death? Clearly not.

Carter’s text urging Roy to go through with his death – “I f—ing told him to get back in [the truck]” – is not how a good girlfriend, a caring friend, would behave. But does this make her a criminal?

Just as suicide is lawful in Australia, being a bad person is not necessarily unlawful. Diaconis is correct. It is important not to conflate the law with morality, yet that is exactly what Judge Moniz has done.

The challenge of keeping subjectivity out of the Carter case was something the court was acutely aware of from the get go.

In allowing the case to go to trial, the Massachusetts Judicial Court tried hard to create a narrow framework for argument. The case was not, it said “about a person ameliorating the anguish of someone confronting terminal illness and questioning the value of life”.

Nor was it “about offering support, comfort, and even assistance to a mature adult who, confronted with such circumstances, has decided to end his or her life”.

By process of elimination, the court tried to delineate “good” suicide assistance from the reckless, misdirected and dangerous advice offered by Carter.

However, from a legal point of view, like it or not, Carter’s guilty verdict has created a climate where any response to talk by a person considering ending their life is now problematic.

This is especially as Carter had earlier tried to convince her boyfriend to get help for his suicidal thoughts. She had supported him in choosing life. Her later support for Roy’s suicide was certainly the result of misguided youth.

But should her morally bad-person behaviour (what some might call misguided foolish youthfulness) make her a criminal? I don’t think so.

It is this apparent sureness of intent on the part of the Massachusetts Judicial Court that makes Carter’s business our business, even here in Australia.

For instance, can a doctor (or close friend or loved one) talk to a terminally ill patient (or friend) if that mentally capable person has made the decision to end their life?

Dare they agree in writing – say via a WhatsApp message – with the loved one’s decision?

The legal answer is now 50 shades of grey darker.

Ironically, the assisted suicide movement’s very existence depends on our ability to speak openly to people considering dying with dignity.

While the 80-year-olds whom I deal with on a daily basis are far from the troubled teen who was Roy, our chats occur on the phone, on email and in our online discussion forums.

I have always gone out of my way to neither encourage nor discourage a terminally ill person, or an elderly person, who seeks my “counsel” to take one course of action over another.

What I have done for the past 20 years is provide a safe and understanding space for the communication to take place.

Tricky questions abound daily. Should I be worried about what I say in response or what medium I choose? Open discussion is an essential part of the decision-making process that can surround dying.

A healthy society must insist that it should not be shut down.

Dr Philip Nitschke is the director of Exit International.

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