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Saturday 23 August 2014

Silence on right to die speaks volumes about moral cowardice of politicians

Published 26/02/2014 | 02:30

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Marie Fleming with her partner Tom Curranat at their home in Co Wiclkow
Marie Fleming with her partner Tom Curranat at their home in Co Wiclkow

The right to life is enshrined in law is this country but should we also have a right to die? The question is a divisive one but opinions on the matter can be divined quite easily: do you think there can ever come a point, after a patient is diagnosed with a terminal illness, that life is no longer worth living?

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Or, in using every innovation of medical science to keep patients alive for as long as possible, with no regard for their quality of life, are we extending their lives or merely extending their agony?

Contemplating ending one's own life, in an ideal world, would never occur. However, it is a reality for many and there is an inherent unfairness in the way people with disabilities are treated under the law.

Suicide, for the able-bodied, is no longer a crime. However, for those without the physical capacity to complete the act, because their bodies have been so ravaged by disease, assisted suicide is an option that is denied to them.

Not only does their illness rob them of their health, and ultimately their life, it also robs them of the autonomy to determine the time and place of their own death.

So, they are trapped. Trapped in their bodies, trapped in their pain and trapped in their despair.

For them, denied any agency over their own bodies, the future is entirely bleak. And they can find no relief in the courts.

MS sufferer Marie Fleming, who recently passed away, last year failed in her bid to establish a right to die in the Constitution.

The Supreme Court found that no such right existed and that it was a matter that could only be determined by legislators.

But, in a country where politicians routinely defer issues of moral controversy to the courts, the prospect of legislation being enacted, now that door has been closed, is remote.

This appeared to be confirmed by Enda Kenny when he was asked, in the wake of the Fleming judgment, if the Government would move to introduce legislation in the area.

"I understand the grief of this extraordinary woman and the commitment of her partner and family but it is not open to me to give you the commitment you seek," he said, in response to a question from Independent TD John Halligan.

If the Taoiseach, supposedly the most powerful politician in the country, professes himself to be unable or unwilling to act, then where do campaigners turn?

Perhaps to the 69pc of Irish people who, according to an opinion poll published last year, feel that assisted suicide is a right that should not be denied to the terminally ill.

Political cowardice, in the face of such overwhelming public support, is both reprehensible and incomprehensible. But public sentiment, if it was marshaled, could prove a powerful incentive for action.

And action is needed. Because, as medical science continues to advance, patients suffering from chronic diseases, which would formerly have proved quickly fatal, can now live for many years with little quality of life. So, the number grappling with this tragedy is bound to increase.

Why should their rational desire to hasten the inevitable, and escape a life of torment, be considered criminal and their demand to die with dignity, and without unnecessary suffering, be denied?

That is not to say that those opposed to any relaxation of the law do not have legitimate concerns but these are not insurmountable.

The most glaring problem is that there is no objective way to measure when one's life becomes too unbearable to continue.

Some will stoically face their illness, determined to live with palliative support for as long as they can. For others, the prospect of a slow, degenerative illness is tantamount to torture.

Science fiction author Terry Pratchett, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease a number of years ago, has suggested that panels staffed with medical and legal experts be established to assess the merits of individual cases.

Fears that any change in the law would inevitably lead to vulnerable elderly people feeling pressurised to end their own lives are also not borne out by any evidence.

In a 2007 study of assisted suicide laws in Oregon and the Netherlands, the 'Journal of Medical Ethics' found there was "no current evidence for the claim that legalised physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia will have a disproportionate impact on patients in vulnerable groups".

While opinions on this issue will diverge, it's time that the political establishment accepted their responsibility to review the blanket prohibition and determine if it can be justified in the public good.

With the courts having expressly stated that this is not an issue they can deal with, it is up to politicians, as legislators, to finally take up the mantle and start the debate.

Irish Independent

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