There’s an interesting legal precedent case upcoming in Minnesota that I’ve been pondering.
For several years, a 47-year-old Minnesota man (a nurse, married with 2 kids) spent a lot of his time on the Internet in suicide chat rooms. Not because he was contemplating suicide, but because he liked to talk to women who were contemplating suicide.
He’d pose as a woman himself and advise and encourage the women to go ahead and kill themselves. He’d enter into a fake suicide pact with them, pretending that they were going to go through this momentous event together. He claims to have encouraged at least a dozen women through their suicides.
For the “thrill of the chase”. He says his “interest in death and suicide could be considered an obsession”
This guy came to the attention of authorities in 2008 when he made a suicide pact with a University of Ottawa student and encouraged her to kill herself by jumping into the Ottawa River. Which she did.
The problem, as I understand it, is that this guy has not clearly broken any laws. They’ve charged him under some assisted suicide law which applies to “anyone who advises, encourages or assists another in taking the other’s own life.”
He’s not under arrest, however, and the odds of him being convicted or penalized for what he did are slim.
The problems involve the fact that his relationships with the people he encouraged were conducted entirely online and, in the case of the Ottawa student, there are also jurisdictional issues. George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, says what the man did was basically just “screaming to people on a balcony to jump”.
It’s morally reprehensible, but should it be illegal? Apparently the whole case is also vulnerable to challenge under the US First Amendment free-speech laws. Telling people to go kill themselves makes you a jerk, but not really a criminal.
At the same time, many people have been advocating for years to decriminalize assisted suicide. Much as we would not like to be in Jack Kevorkian’s shoes, I think most of us would agree that his cause and is work is noble.
So, if we convict this crazy-assed freak from Minnesota, how will that impact the progress made by the right-to-die people?
Of course if I were a friend or family member of the people that were encouraged into suicide by Minnesota guy, I would want him punished, too.
However, the people in question were clearly troubled and seriously contemplating suicide or they wouldn’t have been in the suicide chat room to begin with. There were obviously a lot of other issues at play here – issues that were brewing for a long time before they ever encountered Minnesota guy.
He didn’t hold them captive or force them into anything. At any time they could have shut down their computers and walked away.
On the other hand, these were extremely vulnerable people reaching out to anyone who had some understanding of the dark, dark place in which they found themselves. And they thought they’d found some kinship – someone who knew; someone they could really talk to.
And Minnesota guy took advantage of that. Instead of helping them to find their way into a less dark place, like most other people would do, he advocated for hurling themselves over the edge.
Morally wrong? Absolutely.
Ethically wrong? Absolutely.
Legally wrong? Probably not.
The internet is presenting us with a whole bunch of interesting new problems we have no idea how to address. What should or can we do about people like Minnesota guy?