Wednesday 23 October 2019

Book review: How far would you go to help a friend?

Biography: Crime or Compassion? Gail O'Rorke, Hachette, €16.99

Gail O’Rorke has offered a frank and courageous account of the events before and after her terminally-ill friend Bernadette Forde took her own life, as well as her own difficult childhood
Gail O’Rorke has offered a frank and courageous account of the events before and after her terminally-ill friend Bernadette Forde took her own life, as well as her own difficult childhood
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Gail O'Rorke made headlines in 2015 as the first person to be accused and sent to trial for allegedly assisting a suicide. For three weeks, photographers outside the Criminal Courts of Justice pursued her, and each day, a growing number of strangers turned up to support her.

Assisted suicide, or active euthanasia, is currently only legal in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Under the terms of these countries' laws, a person's life may only be deliberately ended by their doctor or other health professional.

Clearly, very strict laws have to be observed in such circumstances, given that financial motivation could be inherent. In Ireland, assisted suicide is illegal, though attempting to commit suicide in itself is not a criminal act. Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and is punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Crime or Compassion? is Gail O'Rorke's version of how events unfolded before and after Bernadette Forde took her own life in June 2011, using a drug she ordered online from Mexico.

Bernadette, with whom Gail became acquainted while cleaning her apartment, was a successful career woman but was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis (MS) when they met. The friendship that ensued led to Gail becoming Bernadette's part-time carer as the condition worsened. As if the impact of MS was not tragic enough, the two women were to end up in a bizarre car crash, confining Bernadette to a wheelchair.

We rarely get an insight into the mind of the accused, but in her account of the events leading up to her trial, Gail evokes the trauma of sleepless nights, the bewildering legal process and her terror of potential imprisonment for fourteen years.

What gives this story more substance are Gail's childhood memories. She tries to make sense of her abusive family environment as the source of her courage and strength. Her troubled upbringing, permeated by her father's savage violence and sexual abuse of his children was made all the worse by the cold indifference of her mother.

The depravity of her father caused Gail to run away from home at sixteen and report him to local gardai. The tragic irony of gardai ignoring young Gail, and then pursuing her doggedly in her forties, for allowing her terminally-ill friend to take her own life, is not lost on the reader.

Her father is still alive, in a nursing home with early-stage dementia. In her typically frank style, Gail declares that she and her siblings often say "the devil doesn't even want him".

The evil that prevailed in her childhood is compensated by the love of her husband, Barry, with whom she had two children before she was 20. She describes her reliance on him with great intensity. Without his support, I could not imagine how she would have survived the mental trauma from 2011, when organising flights to Dignitas in Switzerland, to her three-week trial four years later.

Gail describes her dealings with Dignitas as a lengthy process. The applicant must provide affidavits, medical records dating back ten years, a birth certificate, letters of compos mentis to confirm that they are in their right mind. According to Dignitas, 85pc of people who receive the provisional 'green light' to avail of their services whenever they choose do not end their life in Dignitas.

It is as if they settle into the illness and get on with living, knowing that they have a back-up plan should their life become unbearable.

When Gail and Bernadette went to Rathgar Travel to organise three flights to Zurich, they told the agent why they were going. In their own way, it was two friends discussing their travel plans, but also intended as protection for Gail. A week later, when she went to collect the tickets, gardai were waiting for her.

The result of that encounter was two years of interrogation in various garda stations, and being charged on three counts of assisted suicide in 2013. The first count was attempting to purchase tickets to travel to Zurich, the second was sending a postal order via Western Union to Mexico to purchase the lethal dose and the third was making Bernadette's funeral arrangements.

At trial, Judge Pat McCartan queried the charge of making funeral arrangements, something many people do with the aid of a solicitor or close family member. This charge, and sending the postal order (Gail was not told by Bernadette the purpose of the postal order), were eventually dismissed, leading to much weeping in relief in the courtroom.

It was ordering the airline tickets that hung over Gail for three weeks.

There were 21 witnesses for the prosecution, including Bernadette Forde's sister, Beatrice, whom Gail had feared. Bernadette had not wanted her older sister to know of her intentions, even though Beatrice's son, Bernard, was due to accompany Bernadette to Switzerland. Gail describes Beatrice as being "very religious, a strict pro-life supporter, so the idea of her baby sister taking her own life, which Beatrice firmly believed was ultimately only God's to take, wasn't something she would accept".

Thus, Gail acknowledges there are many Irish people for whom suffering is something to be endured as 'God's wish'.

Many heart-stopping moments in court are recounted, conflicts in evidence, piercing stares, endless soul-searching, until the two nerve-wracking days that it took the jury to deliver their verdict of not guilty. Since the Supreme Court ruling in Fleming v Ireland in 2013, the position in this country regarding assisted suicide is confirmed as illegal.

It does not matter how much pain the individual is suffering, the level of indignity they endure, or their mental acuity to be certain that they wish to leave the Earth. As Tom Curran - Marie Fleming's partner - can testify.

When the plan to go to Dignitas was foiled, Bernadette was extremely distraught. She discovered Exit International online, which linked her to Tom Curran.

He was to befriend both women, and remains, along with Gail, a campaigner for the right to die with dignity. This book exposes many important issues and is a legacy of two courageous friends.

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