Monday 18 February 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'There are no easy answers around issue of euthanasia - but it's time we started asking the hard questions'

'Watching someone being forced to endure months and even years of agony and fear as their own body becomes their enemy is little short of obscene.' (stock photo)
'Watching someone being forced to endure months and even years of agony and fear as their own body becomes their enemy is little short of obscene.' (stock photo)
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

As the nation girds its loins and tries to figure out just how bad the next few post-Brexit months are going to be, the traditional Irish fear that our destiny is once more out of our hands has returned with a vengeance.

No longer the captains of our own destiny, we're yet again at the mercy of the larger nations. But if there is one consolation, it is that at least we have, to a certain extent, got our own house in order.

Within the space of little more than a generation, we have gone from being a socially conservative country which always seemed 20 years behind the rest of Europe, to a liberal, cosmopolitan society.

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To put that progression into its historical context, the heady days of Italia '90 are often credited with ushering a new era of Irish modernity and laying the foundation stones for the Celtic Tiger.

But it was also the year when family planning campaigners were fined and prosecuted for selling condoms, when people protested outside the inappropriately named Virgin Megastore when they began to stock them, and one candidate in the 1991 local elections ran on a platform arguing that the prophylactics contributed to the spread of Aids.

Fast forward to today and now the major argument over condoms is why they aren't free for students.

Since those days, when we emerged blinking into the 20th century, we have introduced contraception, divorce, gay marriage and abortion - all things which were once considered profoundly 'unIrish'.

The convincing victory for the Repeal side in last September's referendum, which cleared by a remarkable margin of 67pc-33pc, was comprehensive, factually undeniable proof that this is indeed a very different country to the one many of us grew up in.

But as Michael Kelly wrote in these pages last week, the campaign for bodily autonomy and individual rights still has one great battle left to fight - the right to die.

In Mr Kelly's case, he was approaching the argument from a pro-life perspective.

Yet his assessment that: "It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to know that euthanasia and assisted suicide will, sooner or later, become the next big moral battleground ... the people who fought for the right to contraception, divorce and abortion may well see choosing how and when they die as a natural step", could just as easily have come from a pro-euthanasia campaigner.

Euthanasia is, without a doubt, our next big 'national conversation'.

Not as emotive as abortion, and not as glamorous as gay marriage, euthanasia has remained a largely fringe issue which crops up only sporadically with high-profile cases such as Tom Curran and Gail O'Rorke, who were investigated (and in O'Rorke's case prosecuted and found not guilty) by the authorities for helping a loved one die.

But the fundamental and, to be honest, rather strikingly obvious difference between euthanasia and all the other 'moral' arguments we have in this country is that we all die.

As Ireland continues to develop an ever ageing population, which is kept alive longer by modern medical techniques, this is going to become an issue which touches more people, and their families, with each passing year.

It should be pointed out, of course, that we are lucky to have a wonderful hospice service and the standard of palliative care is extremely high. In fact, the incredible people who work in those hospices aren't just the unsung heroes of the health service, they're unsung heroes in society in general. The work they do is often under-recognised and under-appreciated, but there is only so much anguish that medicine can alleviate, and only so much the staff can do.

Frankly, watching someone being forced to endure months and even years of agony and fear as their own body becomes their enemy is little short of obscene.

It's often pointed out that we don't even treat our pets in such a manner and while that has become something of a cliché in the euthanasia argument, it's a cliché because it is true.

In Tom Curran's instance, his partner was the indefatigable Marie Fleming, who was stricken with a debilitating disease which meant she could no longer administer her own death and she argued that was a form of discrimination against the disabled.

But each case is as unique and different as the people involved and it remains the last great battleground between the rights of the individual and the external forces of other people's morality which insists the dying endure even more pain than they or their loved ones can bear.

Much has been made of the so-called slippery slope. That argument was also used against the introduction of divorce in this country, and despite the dire warnings of marital catastrophe and rabble-rousing slogans such as 'Hello divorce, goodbye Daddy', we still have one of the lowest rates of divorce in Europe.

But it would also be a mistake to blithely dismiss the slippery slope argument because we don't even have to hypothesise - we can simply look to other countries where euthanasia has been introduced to see that there have been numerous cases which have stretched the definition to breaking point.

In the Netherlands, which was the first country to introduce euthanasia as legal, medical procedure, we have seen young, otherwise able-bodied people successfully request euthanasia because they are depressed.

That is, under any moral microscope, a rather horrifying endorsement of the idea that suicide is the solution to depression.

One of the most challenging and, indeed, upsetting cases of euthanasia occurred in Belgium in 2013 and involved twin brothers, Marc and Eddy Verbessem.

Born deaf, they were 45 when they discovered that they were also going blind and, against the original wishes of their family, they chose to be euthanised together.

As their brother said at the time: "I sometimes think, if they had their own wives and children, perhaps they would have had something to live for.

"I tried to talk them out of it even at the last minute. Together with my parents, I said goodbye. Marc and Eddie waved at us, 'up in the sky', they said. Then they were gone."

Equally troubling is that in countries which don't have the death penalty but do sentence people to life without parole, such as Belgium and Australia, there have been cases of lifers demanding euthanasia because they claim their punishment is akin to torture. Acceding to such demands would simply introduce the death penalty by stealth.

These are moral quandaries which can't be dismissed. But ultimately, nobody, let alone the State, has the moral authority to force someone to prolong their life of agony. Nobody.

Irish Independent

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