Helping a person to die – why new compassionate laws are needed

by jimmykeogh30

Wed, Apr 29, 2015,

Helping another to die is probably the most intensely personal test of individual conscience known to mankind. Most of us are shocked and revolted by murder, suicide and genocide, but when someone we know and love cries out, with justification, for help to die, who among us dares to respond? If we help to accelerate death in these circumstances, are we being ruthless or humane?

Whatever we might answer, in Ireland it is illegal to help another to die – with a punishment, if convicted, of up to 14 years in jail. Notwithstanding this, a recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll among Irish people found that 54 per cent would do just that. This means that 54 per cent of Irish people would risk 14 years in jail to help someone they love do something that is perfectly legal in Ireland.

That may seem confusing. In Ireland, since 1993, the taking of one’s own life is not illegal, but providing help to someone to take his or her own life is illegal. It is probably the only law that exists where it is illegal to help someone do something that is perfectly legal.

Marie’s challenge

The issue of assisted dying came into focus in Ireland over the past few years. The first was when it was made public that I was prepared to help the person I love, Marie Fleming, to die at a time of her choosing. The second was Marie’s constitutional challenge to the blanket ban on assisting a person to die.

Part of the grounds for that challenge was that a disabled person was unable to do something that was legally available to an able-bodied person. That is, that her disability brought on by her having MS made it physically impossible for her to take her own life. Our Constitution does not allow discrimination on the basis of disability.

The court in its judgment found that there were grounds for discrimination, but that to strike out the law could put vulnerable people in danger.

I agree completely with this view. Vulnerable people need to be protected, but not at the total exclusion of rational, terminally ill people who decide they do not want to suffer on. The court stated that there was nothing preventing the Oireachtas from changing the law to allow assistance to be provided to rational adults while still providing protection to the vulnerable.

That was two years ago. The only thing preventing this happening is the courage, or lack of, on the part of our legislators.

The British lead

The court also stated that it believed the DPP would use the same guidelines issued by the UK DPP in deciding whether to prosecute in the future. In other words, that if a person was a carrying out the wishes of a rational adult with an incurable illness who was making an informed decision to die, and was acting out of compassion for that person, it is unlikely they would be prosecuted.

Why, then, was Gail O’Rorke charged with providing assistance to Bernadette Forde in the act of taking her own life to escape the life that MS had dealt her – a charge that Gail has now been acquitted of?

When this law was brought in in 1993, its intention was to decriminalise suicide and create a new law of assisting a suicide. It allowed anybody in Ireland to take their own life or attempt to do so without they or their family falling foul of the law. But in the way it was drawn up, it excludes the only people who might have a reasonable justification in taking their own lives: rational adults with terminal illnesses who face the prospect of a prolonged, painful death.

We are all human, and sometimes legislators don’t get things right first time out. This surely is one of those times. When more than 80 per cent of Irish people feel that the law is wrong and 54 per cent are prepared to break it to help a loved one end their suffering, it’s certainly time to take notice.

A bill will be coming before the Dáil setting out how the law should be amended to both provide for people such as Marie and Bernadette Forde, and to protect the vulnerable. That will be a chance for the Taoiseach and his Government to show their compassion.

Tom Curran’s partner, Marie Fleming, brought a constitutional challenge to the blanket ban on assisting a person to die