Urgent debate that’s a matter of life and death



When my Father died, my Mother knew there was no going back. She missed him so, and decided she didn’t want to go on. She was in stage four of an incurable cancer. Being of sound mind, she told the doctor she didn’t want to take any more medicine. “Keep it for the young people,” she told him.

“I’ve had a good life,” she quietly told me.

So, one blue-skied day in September of the Millennium year, with my siblings and I by her side, she slipped into a coma, the loving hospice nurse cradling my Mother’s shrunken head in her lap. A few days later, my Mother died, peacefully and relatively pain free. More than that though, at 82 years, with an incurable disease, she choose her own time of going, along with that last vestige of human kind, her dignity.

The subject of assisted dying is once more back before the Oireachtas. Euthanasia, assisted-dying, is illegal in Ireland. However, under Irish law, adults have the right to refuse medical treatment, even if such is required to save their life, as long as they have ‘sufficient capacity’, that is the ability to use and understand information to make such a decision.

Was my Mother’s going a form of assisted dying, in all but name?

According to right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, at least 10 Irish people travel abroad every year to avail of assisted suicide. Tom Curran cared for his partner Marie Fleming full-time for more than 15 years before she died from multiple sclerosis in December 2013. Before her passing the couple fought a lengthy court battle as they challenged the ban on assisted dying.

“There are a lot more now than we are aware of. There are people going there all the time,” he says. “Dignitas, in Switzerland, release their figures but they’re just one clinic.”

Marie Fleming was not alone in her battle for the right to die: she joins a select, but growing, few with terminal illness who have taken their cases to court, but all failing to being allowed the right to die at their time of choosing.

Professor Des O’Neill, of the School of Medicine at Trinity College, would concur with court rulings to date. He believes that, if euthanasia were legalised, people might opt for assisted suicide out of fear of what would happen in their future, if alone and decrepit.

Prof. O’Neill compares assisted suicide to wanting an infected tooth removed and says that, instead in seeking such a final solution, we should ensure that there are adequate supports for vulnerable people.

“Death is always challenging, there is grief and loss but most of the evidence is that the majority of people want to die with dignity, and the right to control their own body. The State should not create laws that prevent those who wish to choose when and how they die from doing so.”

For people who choose to journey to Switzerland or Holland, it isn’t just a matter of deciding they want to die and getting on with it. Each has had to meet the criteria for euthanasia which includes being able to give full consideration to what they are planning to do, and that their suffering is “permanent and intolerable”.

In the 30 odd years since renowned GP Paddy Leahy first broached the subject, there has been no substantial public debate on the matter here. There needs to be. It’s a human rights issue. We are living longer, and often with resultant and debilitating illness. Ethically, we should have the right to control our own body and the State should not create laws that prevent those who wish to choose when and how they die from doing so. As with my dear Mother, is not euthanasia, passive euthanasia, practised already in our wonderfully caring hospices?

My late father-in-law lived with Alzheimer’s disease the latter years of his relatively young life. He was gone from us long before he gave up the ghost. There were times when I visited him in hospital alone, those times I wanted to place a pillow over the face of this man, now unknowing, catatonic. And let him slip away.

Quietly, and with his dignity just about in tact.

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