In all of the big news stories that have occurred in recent weeks, only lightly reported was an extraordinary – and unprecedented – decision handed down in the Queensland Supreme Court last week.
In early October, Graham Robert Morant was found guilty of counselling his wife, Jennifer Morant, to commit suicide, and then assisting her to do so by driving her to a hardware store to purchase the generator that she would use to take her own life, unpacking it, and then helping her to set it up in her car before leaving the house and going to church so that she would die alone (and he would have an alibi.)
Mrs Morant suffered from chronic back pain, depression and anxiety, but was not suffering a terminal illness. The judge found that, over a period of about nine months, her husband had convinced her that the best thing to do would be to take her own life. He also found that he had a financial motive to do so.
Mrs Morant had a life insurance policy that had been taken out in 2010. In the years leading up to her death, however, two additional life insurance policies had been taken out on her behalf, with Mr Morant as the sole beneficiary of each one. In total, they would have paid out $1.4 million to Mr Morant if his wife had died, provided she did not commit suicide within 13 months of the policies being purchased.
Mrs Morant took her own life three months after that 13-month deadline expired, making Mr Morant eligibile to receive the associated payments. In the months before Mrs Morant’s death, her husband had taken her to see the property he intended to buy with the money that would be left to him.
Apart from the callousness of such action, what makes this case astounding is that it is the first time in the world, it seems, that a person has been imprisoned for encouraging another person to commit suicide. [The conviction of Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teen who encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide in a series of text messages, and the 15-month sentence imposed upon her, has been appealed and a decision on that case is expected shortly.] Justice Peter Davis of the Supreme Court of Queensland made this clear in sentencing remarks handed down on 2 November, saying that he could find no guidance in Australia or any other jurisdiction on how long to imprison someone who had urged another to take their own life. “Research has failed to find any conviction for any similar offence in any other jurisdiction,” he said.
What this means is that Justice Davis had the opportunity, by the sentence he imposed, to indicate not only to Australia but to the whole world, whether counselling someone to take their own life was a serious criminal offence.
And the judge delivered, sentencing Mr Morant to 10 years imprisonment for counselling his wife to do so. In doing this, Judge Davis commented that counselling a person to suicide is a more serious offence than assisting them to take their own life because, as was in this case, there is an element of persuasion to the crime.
Assisting a person who has otherwise already decided to take their own life is one thing; actively trying to convince them to do so is another, and it is much more dangerous.
Indeed, it exposes one of the grave risks associated with legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide, because it clearly highlights the enormous – and even fatal – amount of influence that a loved one can have over a person in their “choice” to die.
This is particularly the case when a person stands to benefit financially from the death of a family member. Judge Davis spoke of this risk in his sentencing remarks. “One can imagine many circumstances arising where people in positions of trust and responsibility could succumb to the temptation to counsel suicide for personal gain,” he said.
It’s not a great stretch to imagine, for example, an elderly Sydneysider living in a property that, in current markets, could be worth millions of dollars while their children struggle to even save a deposit to purchase their own Sydney home, being pressured to ask for death.
As in the case of Mr Morant, such subtle forms of influence could occur over months or even years, such that the vulnerable person involved can be convinced that suicide is their own free decision. The gradual, hidden nature of such influence would make it near impossible for others to detect.
This is why the continued push to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide is so dangerous, because no legislative safeguard could protect the most vulnerable against this type of influence. It is very good to see that a Queensland judge has become the first in the world to recognise at law the seriousness of such influence. Let’s hope our parliamentarians listen to him.