Thursday 19 September 2019

Euthanasia will be the great moral question of our age

Real world: Gail O'Rorke has done this country a great service with her book
Real world: Gail O'Rorke has done this country a great service with her book
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

This has certainly been a good week if you like to take your news with a side of Armageddon. Between chaos in an America which seems determined to tear itself apart, the rotten stench of incompetence and malevolence emanating from Official Ireland and a Middle East doing its best to revert to the Middle Ages, there's a real sense that we are currently witnessing a startling shift in the world.

I suppose it's what the hippies used to talk about when they sang about the age of Aquarius. I don't know what astrological age we're meant to be going through, but there's something in the wind.

Where that wind will take us is impossible to predict. But in the current atmosphere, where the traditional 24-hour news cycles now changes every few hours, even people who vehemently disagree with each other can concur that we're witnessing seismic events.

So, as a consequence of that, it's inevitable that some things are simply going to slip through the cracks.

That's understandable, of course. As a journalist, I honestly can't remember the last time we had what used to be called a slow news day.

But in the real world, still unscathed by the national and international uncertainty, life - and, more importantly, death - continues apace.

That is why Gail O'Rorke, unlike so many of our political 'leaders', has done this country a great service with her book Crime Or Compassion?, which details her trial for assisting her friend's suicide.

O'Rorke was an average woman from Tallaght, a taxi driver and mother who became the focus of the first trial of its kind in this country. Her friend, Bernadette, had MS and O'Rorke was determined to do her best. In this situation, her best resulted in a landmark trial and a groundbreaking verdict which cleared her last April. Crime Or Compassion is a compelling read, if a tough one. Like Tom Curran before her, who was the focus of legal scrutiny following the death of his partner Marie Fleming, O'Rorke found herself in the middle of a legal maelstrom where it seemed that nobody in authority even knew what to do.

That confusion may be understandable in individuals, but euthanasia and assisted suicide - a vague, legally meaningless phrase since suicide itself is no longer a crime - are concepts which terrify the authorities.

Her book has been reviewed elsewhere in these pages and I urge anyone who has the opportunity to pick up a copy - it's a frequently horrifying tale of a perfectly ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. But it does remind us of one thing - euthanasia is going to be the great moral question of our age. We just don't want to confront it.

As the population continues to age, and as medical science becomes more adept at keeping people alive for longer, this is an issue which most of us will, at some stage, have to confront.

It is also another example of how ordinary people tend to have more smarts and compassion than the people paid to frame our laws.

When I first wrote about euthanasia in 2002, following the horrific death of English MND sufferer Diane Pretty, the reaction from readers was largely one of condemnation.

Only God can take a life, was the general refrain, one which was as stupid then as it is cruel now.

However, in the years since Pretty's death, I've taken part in numerous debates on the issue and it has been astonishing to see so many people change their mind on the issue - even I and my fellow panellists were taken aback to win a debate hosted by one Irish university's pro-life society.

The reason so many people are changing their mind on the issue is twofold - the proscriptive power of religion has waned in this country, and more of us have seen at least one loved one linger on this earth for far too long, withering and diminishing by the day until there's nothing left but a pain riddled husk.

It's an unbearably cruel system which forces us to watch our loved ones endure the worst torture of them all - their own body becoming their enemy and heaping new agony and fresh indignities by the day.

One of the more cynical objections to assisted suicide - or 'assisted dying' as O'Rorke more honestly terms it - is that it's the thin end of the wedge and somehow linked to abortion - it's not and it isn't.

As someone who is, I suppose, reluctantly pro-choice, I can see the validity in many of the anti-abortion arguments, even though I don't necessarily share them.

But when it gets to the stage when a sentient, conscious adult knows that their time on this earth has run its course and any prolonged existence will be one of pain and emotional turmoil, I cannot see any compassionate arguments against helping them to end it, if they can no longer physically manage to do so for themselves. It is, as my secular Jewish friends say, the ultimate mitzvah.

The most obnoxious argument I ever heard against helping someone ease off this mortal coil came from a theologian who said that there was 'dignity in suffering', something I have seen at first hand to be a filthy rotten lie - there is no dignity in a lingering, painful death, just despair for all concerned.

So, thank you Gail O'Rorke, Tom Curran and all the medics who quietly help people in their hour of greatest need.

You are the best of us.

Indo Review

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