The recent, disturbing criminal trial of Michelle Carter not only tests new legal boundaries, it’s a mirror held up in front of our society.
On June 16th, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy. Because Carter wasn’t with Roy when he committed suicide, many legal analysts found the verdict surprising.
In 2014, Conrad Roy met Michelle Carter while on vacation. As New York magazine put it, theirs was a “thoroughly modern teenage romance: texting, telling each other their secrets, saying they loved each other, but only meeting in person, as far as his family knows, a couple of times.”
Roy had a history of psychiatrists call “suicidal ideations,” which were the subject of many of the text exchanges between him and Carter. But instead of urging her boyfriend to get help, Carter encouraged him to take his life, often asking him “when are you going to do it?”
And in the most damning exchange, Carter reproached Roy: “You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it, but you never do. You just have to do it.”
Finally, Roy did it by filling his truck with carbon monoxide, while on the phone with Carter. When he tried to get out of the truck, Carter, as she told a friend in a text, told him to get back in.
Transcripts of the texts are now public. And while legal experts debated whether Carter’s actions were actually a crime, the court of public opinion has been unanimous: her actions were heinous.
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But lost in the outrage and debate over Carter’s action is an appreciation of the irony at the heart of this story: Carter’s messages were only an exaggerated and specifically directed version of the messages our culture—including policy and media leaders—send already to fragile and vulnerable people all the time.
The most obvious example is physician-assisted suicide. As Wesley J. Smith has said, our “society broadly accepts the agenda of killing as an acceptable end to human suffering . . . We eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferers.”
And to an extent that few people understand, that suffering is mental not physical. “Only 22 percent of patients who died between 1998 and 2009 by assisted suicide in Oregon . . . were in pain or afraid of being in pain, according to their doctors.”
As Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the architects of Obamacare, wrote in the New York Times, “Patients [who request physician-assisted suicide] say that the primary motive is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control.”
“In this light,” Emanuel continues, “physician-assisted suicide looks less like a good death in the face of unremitting pain and more like plain old suicide.” Despite this, two-thirds of Americans believe that physician-assisted suicide should be legal.
And the media, in Michelle Carter-like fashion, is also guilty of encouraging suicide by glamorizing it. A recent episode of The Daily, the New York Times podcast with Michael Barbaro, told the story of a Canadian man choosing the time of his death on his own terms surrounded by friends and family. The episode, which told nothing of doctors who have recused themselves from the procedure because of regret or families who wish their loved ones had chosen life instead of death, ended by telling us how much we can learn about dying from such a beautiful story.
What Carter did was reprehensible, perhaps even criminal. But while her actions were extraordinary, her belief that suffering is best dealt with by eliminating the sufferer isn’t. Our culture is largely clueless about what gives life value and what gives us dignity. Because we don’t know what a life worth living looks like, we don’t know what a truly good death looks like, either.
This cluelessness, and the evil it begets, will be with us long after we forget the name “Michelle Carter.”