Dignity of Praveen and Tom shines in a dark time
TOM Curran cut a dignified figure as he gently wheeled his terminally ill partner, Marie Fleming, into a sombre courtroom packed with lawyers in Dublin this week.
The poignant television pictures of the full-time carer escorting the woman he has shared 18 years with into the Four Courts building told its own heartbreaking story. The only dash of colour amid the dark-suited legal eagles was the bright red coat that Marie Fleming chose to wear.
Tom Curran was supporting 58-year-old Marie in her legal battle to be spared a horrible death. She is in the final stages of multiple sclerosis and wants the right to die peacefully, at home, surrounded by her family. He was by her side as she described to the three judges the acute suffering that she is going through on a daily basis.
The pain is so severe sometimes that she is afraid her head will burst open. She told of spasms that wreck her body and "pierce my very heart". She said her voice and swallow function have gotten progressively worse and she chokes at least four times a day. She has to be thumped to get her breathing to start again.
"I've come to court today, whilst I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death . . . in the arms of Tom and my children," she told the three judges, who came down from the bench so they could sit at eye level with her as she gave evidence from her wheelchair.
Contrast this with the story of another dignified partner, Praveen Halappanavar, who is prepared to do legal battle so he gets answers as to why his wife, Savita, died aged 31. He wants to know whether she died because of a right to life issue.
Savita presented in Galway University Hospital on October 21 with pain and was found to be mis-carrying. In interviews following her death, Praveen has told how, despite learning she was miscarrying, Savita did not get a termination.
This was because the foetal heartbeat was still present, he says. Savita spent a further two-and-a-half days "in agony" until the foetal heartbeat stopped. The dead foetus was removed and Savita died of septicaemia on October the 28.
Here we have two tragic stories. Two heartbroken but dignified men. And two hugely emotive and complex issues that dominate our medical, legal and political debate – the right to die and the right to live.
The Marie Fleming and Savita Halappanavar cases raise all sorts of questions that highlight the conflict that arises between personal requirements on the one hand, and the responsibilities of the State to make laws that protect people's rights on the other.
When it comes to the right to die, the debate centres around how precious life is and who has the power to make the decision that a life should end because pain and suffering have become too much.
It was only a matter of time before the Irish courts were going to be confronted with such a case. Around the world, judges are dealing with many similar cases of incurably ill but competent patients seeking to end their lives.
Suicide is not illegal in Ireland but it is an offence under the Criminal Law Suicide Act 1993 for a person to be an accomplice to such an act. So anyone who helps Marie Fleming or others like her to die face a jail term of up to 14 years.
Ms Fleming claims her constitutional as well as European Convention rights to dignity, privacy and autonomy as well as self-determination, are impaired by the force of the absolute ban on assisted suicide in the 1993 law.
And then there is the right to life. Abortion is available on demand in most European countries but is illegal in Ireland, except where the life of the mother is at risk. Unlike terminally ill people who can make the decision themselves that they want to die, a life inside a mother's womb doesn't have a voice.
What we have had over the last few weeks are divisive arguments backwards and forwards. What is not in dispute is the sadness and the trauma that these issues have visited on two men and their families. Unfortunately, laws set down in black and white cannot always take into account the specific circumstances of individual cases.
The majority of people in Ireland don't want the flood-gates to open here for euthanasia or abortion on demand. Meanwhile, instead of grieving and coming to terms with loss and impending loss, Tom Curran and Praveen Halappanavar find themselves doing legal battle.
What shines out here is their dignity and their love for their partners.