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Monday 19 February 2018

Spirit unbroken, Marie leaves a moving legacy

Marie Fleming with her partner Tom Curran at their home in Co Wicklow
Marie Fleming with her partner Tom Curran at their home in Co Wicklow
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

AT least part of Marie Fleming's dying wish was fulfilled when she passed away yesterday in the arms of her partner and full time carer Tom Curran.

She had lost a landmark Supreme Court appeal in Dublin in April, when lawyers had argued he should be allowed to help end Marie's life without fear of prosecution as she was physically unable to do it herself.

Her body was ravaged, but her spirit was unbroken.

This much was clear when the multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferer was brought into the High Court last Christmas in her wheelchair as three judges came down from their elevated bench to listen to her prayer.

"I've come to court today, whilst I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death," Marie implored the three men. She was described by the President of the High Court Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns as the most remarkable witness that any member of the court had ever been privileged to encounter.

She was more: Marie Fleming was perhaps the most remarkable witness to ever come before our courts.

It was a privilege to have been present in court on that unforgettable December day.

The former university lecturer, with an unmistakable glint in her eyes, had us in tears. Tears of sadness as she explained how her extraordinary mind and sharp intellect was trapped inside a body that did not function; how the pain in the back of her neck was so severe at times, she thought her head was going to burst wide open.

Tears of joy as she explained how she had planned her funeral, which she insisted would be a celebration, how she wanted jazz music played and to be laid to rest in a wicker coffin.

More tears as Marie told the judges: "I want to go peacefully in my own home with people I love around me."

In many ways, the assisted suicide campaigner knew her legal action was bound to fail. Marie wanted to have a peaceful and dignified death at a time of her choice, without the risk of prosecution for anyone who helped her.

Suicide was decriminalised in Ireland under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993.

But Section 2.2 of that Act made it an offence to assist a suicide, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The Irish courts had already drawn a line in the right-to-die sands before her landmark challenge.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to die included the right to die a dignified and natural death in a case involving a woman who had been in a near-persistent vegetative state for more than 20 years.

But the court, in the ward-of-court case, would not condone any bid to actively bring about a person's death.

The Supreme Court again refused to push the boundaries of the law when Marie's appeal came before it.

Describing the case as "very tragic", the Supreme Court found that there was no explicit right to commit suicide or to determine the time of one's death in the Constitution.

Another aspect of her case was grounded in a request that the Director of Public Prosecutions would indicate, through guidelines, when a person who assists a suicide -- sometimes known as a "mercy killing" -- may avoid prosecution. The DPP said she could not provide such a roadmap. This is in contrast to England and Wales where the House of Lords ordered the DPP there to issue a policy setting out when people who help their loved ones to die would face prosecution. This turning point, which followed a legal challenge by MS sufferer Debbie Purdy, led to the release three years ago of "realistic and compassionate" prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales. Marie Fleming is our turning point.

She passed away days after the latest right-to-die legal challenge reached the Supreme Court in London and shortly after the DPP here brought an unprecedented assisted suicide prosecution before our courts.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has ruled out any change in our assisted suicide laws. But Marie Fleming's moving legacy lies in the fact that she initiated a national debate that may, in future years, lead to new end-of-life laws.

Irish Independent

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