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Woman too ill to take her life asks court to rule on assisted suicide

A WOMAN in the final stages of an incurable and debilitating disease has asked the High Court to rule whether she has a constitutional right to an assisted suicide.

Marie Fleming (59) is in the final stages of multiple sclerosis (MS) and past the point where she could end her life by her own hand but wants to establish the right to do so with the assistance of someone else, the court heard. She already has difficulties swallowing and speaking, the court heard.

A specially convened division of the High Court - comprising its president Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, and Mr Justice Paul Carney - will hear her case on December 4.

While suicide is not illegal, it is an offence under the Criminal Law Suicide Act 1993 for a person to be an accomplice to such an act and attracts a jail sentence of up to 14 years.

Ronan Murphy SC, for Ms Fleming, said today she was challenging the constitutionality of that law insofar as it interferes with her rights to autonomy and dignity.

Counsel said he was seeking an early date for the hearing of the case because she is in the final stages of MS and past the point of ending her life without assistance.

She would like to end her life in the near future, but cannot do without such assistance given the 1993 law, counsel said.

In her claim against Ireland, the Attorney General and the DPP, Ms Fleming, a former UCD law lecturer from Wicklow, seeks an order declaring Section 2(2) of the 1993 Act invalid under the Constitution and incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Alternatively, she wants an order from the court requiring the DPP to issue guidelines stating what factors will be taken into account when a decision is being made whether to prosecute a person who assists her in ending her life.

Ms Fleming's action is aimed at sparing her partner and full-time carer, Tom Curran, the threat of imprisonment because he had said he is prepared to assist her in ending her life.

Mr Curran, an IT professional, is the co-ordinator of the Irish branch of Exit International, an international end-of-life information organisation that campaigns for the legalisation of assisted suicide.

In an interview last September with the Irish Independent, Mr Curran said Marie, who is wheelchair bound and requires round-the-clock care, "may never exercise the decision (to end her life), but I am willing to go to prison if needs be.

"It would give Marie such comfort, such peace of mind, to know that I will be there for her and that she will not have to suffer needlessly.

"It would give her comfort to know I could help without the threat of prison. Peace of mind, that is what this case is about."

Five years ago, Ms Fleming registered with Dignitas, the clinic in Zurich,Switzerland, where terminally ill patients can bring about their own deaths under the supervision of qualified doctors.

But Ms Fleming did not travel after Mr Curran vowed that he would assist her to die at a time of her choosing -- even if it meant going to jail.

Today, lawyers for the AG and the DPP said they had no objection to an early hearing date for the case.

Paul O'Higgins SC, for the DPP, said the case would largely be a matter of legal argument rather than evidence, There was an amount of case law from other jurisdictions, in particular Canada, which would have to be looked at, he said.

Mr Justice Kearns said it was a very important case with far reaching implications and he was proposing to convene a division of the court. He fixed December 4 for the hearing and said it could be mentioned to him again in a week's time.