‘If I want to die, why can’t I do so with dignity?’

ENDURING intense pain and suffering because of an auto-immune disease that affects the central nervous system, Marie Curran asks: “If I want to die, why won’t you let me do so with dignity? Instead I must suffer a debilitating pain and degrading death.”

When Marie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, her partner Tom Curran found himself thrust into the debate surrounding assisted suicide. “MS, technically is not a terminal illness. However, the symptoms of the disease end up killing the patient as the immune system begins to shut down. When Marie was diagnosed with the illness, she knew one thing and one thing only — she wanted to die with dignity, not waste away to nothing.

“We informed ourselves of the symptoms of MS and what could be the eventual outcome, and decided to look for alternative methods to handle the disease when it go too painful — or came to a point where Marie felt she no longer wanted to live.”

Knowing very little about the options available for alternative treatment or resolution to a crippling illness at the time of the diagnosis, Tom began asking questions. Each time he asked a question — he felt he received no answer.

Finally, Tom caught a break. A movement was taking shape in which people afflicted by incurable illnesses, excluding depression or mental illness, were deciding to take their own lives. Tom and Marie found solace in the idea. What Tom got was a whole lot more than he bargained for.

The only place in Europe offering this service is Dignitas in Switzerland. Dignitas offers a service for consenting, competent, terminally ill patients to end their lives. The process is lengthy as the individual must be assessed by physicians and is costly.

However, since it is against the law here in Ireland to assist or aid in suicide, care must be taken in even offering information on the subject or directing an individual to a source. Tom Curran warns: “Offering funds, booking a ticket or even pushing a wheelchair, technically, could constitute aiding in the commission of a crime in assisting a person to travel to Switzerland and could see that person charged with a crime.” The ‘crime’ is covered by the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993.

“In fact, any assistance offered to the afflicted individual in bringing about the end of their life could see the compassionate individual facing criminal charges. Due to this restriction, people travel to Dignitas earlier than is necessary, in order to protect their loved ones from prosecution, by making the arrangements themselves.”

So far the law has not been tried or tested in this country.

“Oddly enough,” Tom adds, “suicide or attempted suicide is not illegal here in Ireland. But assisting in the death of a suffering loved one is. Currently I am facing an inquiry into the suicide death of a woman who came to me for information. After I explained that I was unable to help, she took her own life and an inquiry is set to take place.”

In the UK the Crown Prosecutor stated that they would take into account the person’s intention when considering whether or not to charge them with an offence against the Crown. But this attitude could change when the lead prosecutor changes. The Office of the DPP in Ireland has not made any statement on the question.

Now Tom works with the Exit International (Europe) organisation, which helps people to die with dignity. This association was founded in Australia and its branch here in Europe meets regularly for people who are terminal, or are supporting a patient. Exit provides information via a book written by the organisation’s founder, Dr Philip Nitschke. Tom says the book offers practical ways in which a person can bring about the end of their own life. “It includes methods to avoid which might be more painful or frightening than others,” he says.

Today, Tom is lovingly caring for his partner Marie, a former university lecturer. He explains how he gave up his own career in the IT business to look after Marie, without one moment’s regret. “I assist her getting dressed, with food preparation and intake, getting into and out of bed and performing all of those daily tasks that so many of us take for granted. Even getting to an interview or appointment can be a challenge these days, as I cannot be away from our home for prolonged periods of time. I love Marie and this is part of our journey.”

Tom and Marie discussed options of what they could do when things got to a point that Marie could no longer manage the crippling effect and pain of the illness. The answer they arrived at was assisted suicide.

Outraged by being excluded from this option in Ireland, Tom has further immersed himself in Exit. “When we present it to people at colleges and universities throughout the Irish state, it seems very well supported. Although progress is very slow, because we have seen only small changes over the past couple of years. We have been invited to speak at law conventions around the country. And earlier this year I was invited by the Christian Brothers to speak to Leaving Cert students.”

But Tom is frustrated with the situation here. “When all hope is lost, and palliative care is the only option for giving your loved one quality of life, why is there no choice for a person to end their own life?

“Since Marie and I have made the decision for her to end her own life when the pain becomes too much, we have been offered a second lease of life. Now we can live life again knowing that Marie will not have to die an undignified death. We get on with life — it is like an insurance policy. I know I will probably get into a lot of trouble if I do help her. If the time does come, the choice is hers, not mine. She may make up her mind or she may never make her mind. She may die quickly without any pain. In that case, we will not have to decide.”

Tom says he is kept going in this movement by knowing that freedom of choice is an important aspect of being a human being. “I am sure most families have been touched by a person dying of a painful illness, and it is a horrific experience for everyone involved. Now people want a choice.”

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