Occasionally, someone commits a crime so heinous and disturbing it leads to demands for specific changes in law. Such is the case in Utah in the wake of the suicide of a 16-year-old girl and the efforts of a young man accused of helping, abetting and encouraging her.
A bill before the Utah Legislature would add assisted suicide to the state’s manslaughter statute. That is an appropriate measure that could give law enforcement authorities more prosecutorial leverage.
Few things governments do are more important than defending the sanctity of life. Young people, in particular, often lack the maturity and critical thinking skills to make rational decisions, especially when faced with pressure from peers.
The bill arises from the tragic case of a young woman found dead in a remote part of Payson Canyon after an acquaintance allegedly purchased items for the woman, drove her to the destination and assisted with the suicide. Such a disturbing incident is rare, but we can find no disadvantage to adding statutory language allowing criminal recourse against anyone who might do such a thing.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Michael K. McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said Utah is one of only six states without a statute that specifically addresses helping someone commit suicide. Given that, we see no reason for his measure, HB 86, not to be passed and signed into law.
The defendant in the case, 18-year-old Tyerell Przybycien, is charged with homicide, but defense lawyers argue the facts of the case do not merit a murder charge and that the victim was responsible for her own death. While McKell’s bill would not preclude filing murder charges in future cases of assisted suicide, it also would allow prosecutors to bring felony charges based on that specific behavior alone.
Aside from a situation in which someone may actually help someone take his or her own life, there are many cases in which a victim was taunted or tormented in a way that led them to consider suicide. To address such instances, the state passed a cyberbullying law in 2016, making it unlawful to post material online with the intent of harassing, abusing, threatening or frightening another person. Critics of the law feel its wording is too vague and may lead to innocent people being charged with a crime. But, as with assisted suicide, laws against cyberbullying seek to disrupt a cycle that has become a significant social problem.
McKell’s bill seems a good next step in protecting society when people treat the lives of others with callous disregard without any consequences.
Suicide rates among young adults, particularly young women, have reached historic highs. Between 2007 and 2015, the rate of suicide among girls ages 15 to 19 doubled, while it rose 30 percent for boys in the same age group. That time period coincides with a rise in social media use by teenagers. Some studies have drawn correlations between suicidal thoughts and frequent exposure to social media. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disordersfound that more use of social media resulted in greater odds of an anxiety disorder.
To leverage that anxiety by encouraging and helping someone to commit suicide is a crime against that person, his or her loved ones and society itself. This should be spelled out in law.