In Lawrence MA, Judge Richard E. Welch III sentenced Kristen LaBrie to 8 to 10 years in prison for assault and battery on a child, reckless endangerment of a child, and the attempted murder of her 9 year old son. LaBrie was charged for withholding life-saving cancer treatment from her son Jeremy, who was autistic and developmentally disabled.

Jeremy went through a series of painful in-patient chemotherapy treatments. But LaBrie has said she withheld medications for him at home for months. By spring 2007, doctors realized that the cancer, which had been in remission, had returned in the form of leukemia. LaBrie, then a single mother, lost custody of Jeremy to his father, and the boy died in hospice care, his father by his side. . .

. . . LaBrie, who lived in Salem and Beverly, testified during the trial in her own defense that she withheld the medication because she could no longer bear the pain they were causing her son. The mother, who was diagnosed with depression, also said she was overwhelmed and stressed by the workload of caring for an autistic son who needed chemotherapy. At times, she said, she would have to pin him down to administer the treatments.

This is a tragic case, to be sure, and LaBrie has appropriately received an outpouring of sympathy from parents who can sympathize with the difficulties of raising a sick and handicapped child alone. But it also reveals how often an alleged motive of mercy is tainted with self-interest.

The judge in LaBrie’s case said that “our society is judged on how we protect its most vulnerable members,’’ and yet our society is still very bad at caring for the terminally ill, handicapped, and chronically dependent. It may be that the demand for euthanasia is a result of the fact that we lack the societal skills to care for those who not only suffer and lack autonomy, but also significantly limit our own autonomy and cause us to suffer. A plea for mercy killing might also be a plea for help, help caring for those who are hard to care for.