WHEN we love somebody our instincts are to do anything – anything at all – to protect them from pain and suffering.
Tom Curran is prepared to do whatever it takes to release his partner, Marie Fleming, (59), from the nightmare she has been living every minute of every hour of every day for the past few years. Even if it means breaking the law and going to prison.
Marie is terminally ill and in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. She is wheelchair-bound and can only move her head.
She lives in constant pain and cannot swallow. She suffers frightening choking sessions, which she fears will eventually kill her.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled on Marie's future, rejecting her legal challenge to be allowed assistance in ending her life. She was too ill to attend court to hear seven senior judges rule that there are no grounds under Irish law to a right to die.
Tom and Marie are living a daily hell, and they found no solace in the law yesterday. Marie wants to be allowed to die peacefully at home in Arklow, Co Wicklow, in the arms of her partner, with her children, Corrinna and Simon, and Tom's son, David, close by – at a time of her choosing, when the going becomes unbearable.
The legal action has been physically and emotionally draining. Last night, the couple were in Co Wicklow, continuing with their lives and trying to come to terms with the fact that the Constitution does not protect terminally ill people such as Marie.
What they find hard to accept is that a person with a disability in Ireland is deprived of something that is legally available to every able-bodied person: the ability, if not the right, to take their own life.
Marie's legal team argued that the ban was discriminatory and that she should be given the same right to die by suicide as an able-bodied person.
In her affidavit to the High Court, Marie said she does not wish to end her life immediately. But she knows there will come a point when she cannot go on.
"That time may, for example, be when I can no longer tolerate the pain in which I find myself; when I am wholly dependent on others for basic feeding or hydration so that someone has to put a sponge to my lips to give me water; when I have completely lost bowel or bladder control or both; when (as is possible with my condition) I lose my eyesight."
Tom will wait now for Marie to make the next move. If and when the time comes, when she has had enough, he will do what he has to do and take the consequences. He will go to prison in order to take Marie out of her prison. "And in that case, the court will have an opportunity to decide on my future," he said yesterday.
This is a very difficult case. On the one hand, we have people fighting for a right to life. And, on the other, we have a heartbreaking story of a woman in chronic pain who wants the right to be released peacefully from a life that is unbearable, at a time of her choosing.
There is a school of thought that we must always take what life throws at us, good and bad. Keep a stiff upper lip. While many advances have been made in medicine over the years, unfortunately there is still no cure for the debilitating disease that is multiple sclerosis.
I try to imagine what I would do if a loved one was in constant pain, unable to move, unable to swallow, and facing the prospect of a terrifying death through choking. I think my instinct would be to reach out to help end that suffering, and allow for a peaceful passing, if that was my loved one's wish.
The judges gave their verdict based on their interpretation of the Constitution. They did not have the scope to deal with it from a purely humane point of view.
In the abortion and right-to-life debate, the courts and legislature are making decisions for the unborn, who don't have a voice for themselves.
The right-to-die issue is different, in that terminally ill people have a voice and are capable of making a choice for themselves based on their own ethical priorities and reasons.
The right to die is not just about the act of dying. It is about the peace of mind that while a terminally ill person is still alive, they know that they have the choice not to continue with suffering.
Marie Fleming and her loved ones fought their case with dignity. The outcome had denied them what they believed would be a dignified death for her.