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.
I do not know whether LaBrie belonged to a Christian community. Just as “society is judged on how we protect its most vulnerable members,” so too is the church. Both mother and son in this sad case were vulnerable and needed, to use Stanley Hauerwas’ phrase, the suffering presence of a community of compassion to, as you rightly say, “help [care] for those who are hard to care for.”
Well said, Tobias. LaBrie is a reminder to us all of our need to be better caregivers. And it is for this reason that I think it appropriate to sympathize with LaBrie, rather than demonize her.
Is deciding to forego painful treatment (or in this case, deciding not to inflict it on one’s child) really euthanasia?
The suffering inflicted by chemotherapy can be extreme. I know a woman who survived cancer as a result of chemotherapy, but suffering through it was such an ordeal she says she would not do it again. Should she actually be faced with the choice and decline chemotherapy, would it be committing suicide? My understanding is that it is very much within the Catholic tradition to refuse unduly burdensome medical treatment.
Actually, she let her son go through the chemo. There was no sense that the medicine she withheld was painful for her son, though it was inconvenient for her. You are, however, right, that when treatment is excessively burdensome (extraordinary), one is not obligated to continue it.
You say: “There was no sense that the medicine she withheld was painful for her son, though it was inconvenient for her.”
Yet the article you yourself quote above says, “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. . . . At times, she said, she would have to pin him down to administer the treatments.”
Time Magazine says, “It’s not that she couldn’t be bothered to administer the chemo; she testified that she couldn’t bear to watch him suffer from the toxic drugs so she did not administer treatments, which apparently caused his disease to progress to leukemia.”
Good points. I shouldn’t say there was no sense in which the medicine was painful or burdensome for her son, and I am sure that mercy for her son were part of the complex motivations that compelled her to withhold treatment, but her defense in the trial was primarily aimed at convincing the jury that she was depressed and overwhelmed with her responsibilities of caring for a sick and developmentally disabled child. From the Globe‘s coverage:
Regardless, the treatments were proportionate and ordinary, and thus, morally obligatory. They may have caused her son some pain, but they would have treated the lymphoma. If Jeremy had not been handicapped, we would likely not have much sympathy for LaBrie at all (check out this brief article on the response of other parents of autistic children to LaBrie’s sentencing). I don’t think the lesson from this tragic story is really about the proportionality of cancer treatment (which I don’t think is even a question in this case), but rather, about the need for more support for parents like LaBrie who need a lot more help and support than they get.
Unless you think that Jeremy’s life was not worth living, and that the burdens of the chemo included not only the pain associated with the illness itself but also the pain of living a life with a severe disability. If this is the case, the lesson of the case is actually about the value of every life, especially the most vulnerable, as the judge noted in his closing remarks: