Assisted suicide case reveals complexity of subject

by jimmykeogh30

Wed Apr 29th 2015

Ireland’s laws lag behind much of Europe on this delicate issue as O’Rorke case showed.

“What would I do if I were in Gail O’Rorke’s position?” the lawyer prosecuting the Dublin woman tellingly asked during her trial on charges of assisting the suicide of a friend.

For if this trial showed anything, it is that the issue of assisted suicide is even more complex than we thought.

O’Rorke emerged from the trial as a decent woman who believed she was doing the right thing by her friend, Bernadette Forde, without any inkling of the legal morass into which she was sinking.

Assisted suicide is, understandably, a contentious issue but O’Rorke seemed like the wrong person to be made an example of. Unaware that the practice was illegal, she brought suspicion down upon her head by telling a travel agent about the real purpose of her and Forde’s visit to Switzerland.

That resulted in the involvement of gardaí and the collapse of Forde’s plans to attend the Dignitas euthanasia support centre in Zurich.

Other cases

O’Rorke was no flag waver for the cause of euthanasia and assisted suicide, unlike Rev George Exoo, the American Unitarian minister who travelled to Ireland and was present at the death ofRosemary Toole Gilhooley.

She paid Exoo and a business partner $2,500 for assisting in her death.

In 2007, an attempt to extradite Exoo from the US failed; the only other time a prosecution has been raised under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act.

This legislation, dating from 1993, decriminalised suicide but stated that anyone who aids or procures the suicide of another is guilty of an offence punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years.

That case differs from the current one in that Forde was suffering from an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, whereas Toole Gilhooley had depression, which is not a terminal illness.

Exoo declined to attend the inquest into Gilhooley’s death; O’Rorke co-operated in every way with gardaí and the courts.

In 2013, the Supreme Court rejected the case brought by Marie Fleming against the ban on assisted suicide.

The judges ruled that the right to life clause in the Constitution did not import a “right to die” and stated there was no explicit right to either die by suicide or determine the time of one’s own death. Marie Fleming, who was in the late stages of multiple sclerosis, died shortly after.

Legal position

O’Rorke’s acquittal hardly adds or subtracts from the overall legal position, though it appears to show that the business of getting assistance to end one’s life is getting easier for those so minded.

At least eight Irish people are believed to have used the services of Dignitas to end their lives.

Ireland doesn’t have a good record of dealing promptly with emerging ethical issues – euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland – but the State will eventually have to deal with this thorny subject.