The right to life under the Constitution “does not import a right to die” in this “very tragic case”, the seven-judge Supreme Court ruled.
There is no constitutional right to commit suicide or to arrange for termination of one’s own life at a time of one’s choosing that the State and courts must protect and vindicate, Chief Justice Ms Justice Susan Denham, said.
The right Ms Fleming claimed necessarily extended to a right to have life terminated by another in a case of total incapacity, “would sweep very far indeed” and was “not detectable in the values and philosophy of the Constitution”.
The ban on assisted suicide had required a careful assessment of competing and complex social and moral considerations, an assessment the legislature was “uniquely well-placed to undertake”.
Rejecting other claims that the ban was incompatible with the State’s obligation to safeguard Ms Fleming’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, the chief justice said the ban was consistent with ECHR decisions allowing a wide margin to states to regulate activities detrimental to life and safety.
Nothing in the court’s judgment should be taken as necessarily implying it would not be open to the Oireachtas, if it believed measures with “appropriate safeguards” could be introduced, to legislate to deal with a case like Ms Fleming’s.
Prosecutions for aiding suicide were, she added, “exclusively a matter” for the DPP “in the exercise of the functions delegated to her by law”, and it was “not for the courts to give general directions as to how she should exercise her functions”.
Consideration might be given to the term “aids” at common law when construing the new offence of assisted suicide, not the previous offence of suicide.
Ms Fleming, aged 59, living in Co Wicklow, is in the final stages of multiple sclerosis and sought to be lawfully assisted to have a peaceful and dignified death at a time of her choice without the risk of prosecution for anyone who helped her.
When a three-judge High Court rejected her case last January, she appealed to the Supreme Court against the findings the blanket ban did not breach her rights under the Constitution and ECHR. She did not appeal a finding the DPP had no power to issue guidelines as to what factors would be considered when deciding whether or not to prosecute cases of assisted suicide.
The chief justice noted that suicide was decriminalised here under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993 but section 2.2 of that act made it an offence to assist a suicide.
The fact suicide ceased to be a crime did not establish a constitutional right to suicide and there was “no explicit right” in the Constitution to either commit suicide or determine the time of one’s own death.
The right to life “does not import a right to die” and protection of the right to life “cannot necessarily or logically entail a right which the State must also respect and vindicate, to terminate that life or have it terminated”.