Friday 24 November 2017

End-of-life experts back ban on assisted suicide

Dearbhail McDonald and Tim Healy

ONE of the country's leading end-of-life experts, who has been asked by some patients for his help to let them die, has backed Ireland's criminal ban on assisted suicide.

Dr Tony O'Brien, who chaired the Council of Europe's Expert Committee on palliative care, has told the High Court that it would be "entirely radical" for doctors "to try and kill pain by killing patients".

Dr O'Brien is one of two experts called by the State to give evidence in the landmark challenge to the criminal ban on assisted suicide by multiple sclerosis sufferer Marie Fleming.

A physician in palliative care at Cork University Hospital, Dr O'Brien revealed that some of his patients had asked him to help them die.

Dr O'Brien, who has 26 years' experience with 30,000 dying or suffering patients, said those patients asking for help to die typically fell into separate categories, including those for whom the request was "a cry for help" or a "let me die" plea.

A third group wanted to exert more control over the manner of their death, said Dr O'Brien, who added that he drew "comfort" from the assisted suicide ban.

Dr O'Brien said that some patients feared the process of dying and what happens after death, adding that this fear was something that needed to be carefully managed.

Dr O'Brien told a specially convened three-judge High Court, known as a Divisional court, that the ban on assisted suicide made the situation "crystal clear" for doctors and he feared its removal could result in vulnerable people opting to have their lives ended only so as not to be a burden on others.

It was "quite impossible" to devise safeguards to protect such people and "nothing could be safer" than the ban.

A UK palliative care specialist, Professor Rob George, said offering the option of interfering in the dying process through assisted suicide "completely reclassifies the role of medicine" and "changes society fundamentally" as it involved reclassifying the intentional ending of a person's life, at their request, as "a societally mandated good".

Ms Fleming, who is in the final stages of multiple sclerosis, is challenging the constitutionality of the ban on assisted suicide.

She also wants orders requiring the DPP to outline the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether to prosecute assisted suicide.

Dr O'Brien accepted Ms Fleming was in "an appalling situation" but said individual autonomy must be balanced against the wider societal good.

He said her situation might be improved physically, emotionally and spiritually via engagement with palliative services at the highest level here.

The case continues.

Irish Independent

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