Sunday 22 September 2019

'Secret dignified deaths are carried out all over the country by medics'

Gail O'Rorke is the only person to stand trial for assisted suicide but she believes she is not alone, writes Kevin Doyle

Support: Gail O’Rorke with junior minister John Halligan, who introduced a Right to Die bill in the last Dail. Photo: David Conachy
Support: Gail O’Rorke with junior minister John Halligan, who introduced a Right to Die bill in the last Dail. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

As she waited for the book to be thrown at her, Gail O'Rorke studied the faces of the 12 jurors who would decide her fate.

The 45-year-old was "afraid" of the younger members who "may not have witnessed a parent or a loved one going through that the kind of death".

But then again the older jurors were more likely to have religious beliefs that would see her judged not only in the eyes of the court but also by God.

"You're looking at the older ones thinking, 'Sugar, they're religious, I'm screwed' and the younger people thinking they haven't experienced this yet," she said.

Two years had passed since the Tallaght woman helped make travel arrangements for her friend Bernadette Forde (51) to travel to Zurich in Switzerland.

The plan was simple. They would fly to the Dignitas facility on April 26, 2011 where the multiple sclerosis sufferer would be allowed to die with dignity.

However a "tap on the shoulder" from two gardai when she went to collect the plane tickets set in train a series of events that would see her become the only person ever to stand trial in Ireland for assisted suicide.

"I did hope there'd be some leniency. Myself and Barry [her husband] talked about between six and 10 years with a bit off for good behaviour," she told the Sunday Independent last week.

"Barry recorded a few programmes on Dochas just to see the inside of it, to take the scare out of that and to prepare me, so it wouldn't be that much of a shock.

"Because there was no precedent and we didn't know if the State was going to throw the book at us, to use us as an example to make sure nobody else would step over the mark," she said.

However, in April 2015 she was cleared of aiding and abetting suicide. In the intervening time Bernadette had died, having ingested a drug called Nembutal that she obtained from a Mexican man over the internet.

Gail unwittingly transferred the money to pay for the illegal substance and knew Bernadette was going to take it on Sunday, June 5, 2011.

But the judge acquitted her of two charges of assisting Bernadette's suicide by helping to procure a lethal dose of drugs and making funeral arrangements on the grounds there was insufficient evidence.

Asked what she would say to somebody thinking of taking similar actions today, she struggled to answer.

"There seemed to be a sort of safety net there to catch me. I think another person's journey would be different.

"But I wouldn't talk them out of it because if I could turn back the clock I'd do it again and face prosecution again. And face prison and do prison," she said with an air of certainty.

"The prison Bernadette might have faced for 20 more years in a nursing home, going through hell.

"There are people who would have seen that as her life, but she saw it as her hell. I would have gladly spent 10 years in prison to stop that."

There had never been a moment were she "faulted" or "doubted" what she did, but she did regret a trial that cost taxpayers €1.5m.

"I don't know what people think I did," she said.

"I supported a friend. I was there for somebody who, because of her disability, was unable to tick many of the simple boxes she needed to tick in order have a dignified death."

The taxi driver accepted some people would always see her as 'guilty' but argued she was not alone.

"There's a secret that surrounds this. It's definitely happening in hospices. It's not spoken of in those terms. It is denied by the people who do help. They just hasten it [death] slightly," she said. "I think it's just something medical people take on themselves."

Bringing the 'secret' into the open is now something she is working on with Independent Alliance junior minister John Halligan.

The Waterford TD previously introduced a Right To Die bill in the last Dail and will do so again in the coming weeks - although it won't be in his name.

As a member of the Government, he is not allowed to bring forward laws that haven't been approved by Cabinet so, in what is likely a first, he is going to ask a member of the Opposition to enter into the Dail lottery for debate.

Halligan too believed some medics were quietly helping to speed up deaths.

"I would say you are given the extra morphine and so on. A lot of doctors will say, 'I'm comfortable with that, that's the way that person should go'. I think it's there," he said.

"There's no doctor going to step forward and say 'I do it'. Right now they can't. So we don't know.

"But we would be naive to think that there wouldn't be compassionate people out there who ease it on."

Halligan already gets "terrible hate mail" from people who believed that his abortion views coupled with this legislation meant he was "trying to kill babies and now trying to kill the elderly".

"Deep down, I think a lot of the opposition is probably in a religious context," he said.

"You get that, 'Oh no, only God can take a life'. But park that. The religious thing is nothing to do with how physically a person suffers."

He is a non-believer but added: "What I would say back to a person like that is, 'Well your God, who is a loving and caring God, would he want somebody who is going to go to him anyway in maybe six months' time to go through six months of intolerable suffering? I wouldn't think so.

"I know you can't equate animals with human life. On a religious basis people say we have souls and they don't have souls. But you can fall in love with a pet and be closely attached to a pet for 14 or 15 years.

"You wouldn't leave that pet to suffer."

Halligan pointed to a recent article by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the New York Times.

The 85-year-old opposed the idea of euthanasia all his life but now that he was "closer to the departures hall than arrivals" he had changed his view.

"In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values," he wrote.

"I pray politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth."

Bernadette wasn't into Catholicism but she had faith in God and heaven.

"She believed she'd been here many times before," said Gail. "That her soul was on a journey. Now I know this is all hippy, airy-fairy kind of stuff but she had a deep belief.

"She believed that every time your soul went on a journey it had to repair the damage it may have caused in a previous life."

This was, in Bernadette's mind, her final journey and Gail felt God would judge her if she didn't help her on that passage.

"God's judgement might fall on the person who let them suffer. There's a judgement in that itself. For the person who says, 'No, just wriggle around in the bed for six months and die screaming'. To me that person would be more judged by God," she said.

Halligan's Bill allows for adults who have been medically diagnosed as having less than six months to live to choose their moment of passing.

"I can, unbeknownst to you, be in terrible pain. I could have six months left to live. In the sanctuary of this office here if I decide to jump out that window and kill myself, that is not a crime.

"But if I'm incapable of doing it and I want some help to do it, the person who helps me will be criminalised and charged with murder or manslaughter or assisted death. That doesn't make sense," he said.

In an effort to play down fears that assisted suicide would become common, he pointed to the case of his own father who "fought like mad until his body collapsed" to stay alive for eight years after having a stroke.

"He wanted to live and you praise somebody like that."

In the final paragraph of Gail's book, Crime or Compassion, she said that she "hopes beyond hope that the ripple effect from her legal journey" is a change in the law.

For that to happen involves a whole new journey, but in the meantime, she said others would be covertly making life-ending decision.

"Some people can fly under the radar. But I think if there was legislation it would be brought out into the open."

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss