Time for live debate on assisted suicide

THE programme was going well until this guy, Philip Nitschke, popped up on the screen.

I had come across him before, seen him up close, and in my opinion he’s the type of individual one would be best advised to give a wide berth.

The programme in question was A Time To Die, Alan Gilsenan’s documentary on assisted suicide, or euthanasia, screened on RTÉ1 last Monday. As with much of Gilsenan’s work, it was a well-researched and documented effort to tackle an important issue. He interviewed a number of people who wished to be in the position to have assistance in taking their own life if they required it. Most of these people were in pain, and were fearful their terminal conditions would ultimately take their dignity. Another woman who was also in pain, but of the opinion that nobody should take their own life, was also interviewed. It was heartbreaking stuff.

The first face on screen belonged to the late John McCarthy, who founded Mad Pride. McCarthy is a hero to many for his efforts to drag mental illness, kicking and screaming, out of the dark corner to which it was confined by much of society. He had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and here he was now, his plight shoved into another dark corner, where end-of-life solutions is an issue that dare not speak its name. He addressed the camera with his customary calling cards of humanity and dignity, and the narrator announced that in the end, McCarthy didn’t have to face his worst fears as he ultimately died peacefully.

He was filmed asking rhetorically why he should have to suffer pain all the way past his dignity “because of the moral structure that some people are imposing… you’re a cruel person for putting me in this position,” he said.

His comments went to the heart of the issue. Why should anybody in a terminal, painful condition be denied the right to have assistance in taking their own life in order to avoid further fear and suffering?

On the face of it, there is an overwhelming case to permit assisted suicide. For the greater, if not far greater, part, it would apply to people who have lived a life, made it into the upper reaches of the average span, and, were it not for a debilitating condition, would want to cling to life. Why should somebody in that position be held prisoner by nothing more than a societal taboo? Why should that person not be afforded the comfort of knowing that they were ultimately exiting on their own terms?

On the other hand, there is an argument that any introduction would lead down the slippery slope to elderly people being pressurised to consent to their own death.

The failure to allow for a grown-up debate on the issue has, to some extent, left the field open to people like Nitschke, founder of a group called Exit International, which advocates euthanasia. He is known as Dr Death, a moniker that apparently doesn’t bother him at all.

Two years ago, he arrived in this country intent on spreading his word. Eventually, after his bookings were cancelled in a Dublin hotel and other venues, he spoke at a small resource centre in the inner city. The room was packed, and included a number of people who were afflicted with conditions and genuinely interested in exploring options.

He told of a drug concoction that can be taken by those wishing to end their lives, but then he strayed into the obscene. He spoke of the ‘tired of life’ phenomenon, which was something he seemed to have come up with himself. This, he said, applied to elderly people who decide they no longer want to live, particularly as the prospect of losing the quality of their lives loomed large.

Then he came up with this: “Martin Amis said there are going to have to be suicide booths on every corner to cope with an aging population.” At that point, an overhead projector he was using produced an image of a suicide booth, as displayed on the TV series, The Simpsons. When an issue as vital and as sensitive as euthanasia is reduced to that kind of obscenity, you know you’re in trouble.

Back on last Monday’s programme, we had an alternative view of euthanasia, offered by Berry Kiely, legal adviser to the Pro-Life movement. “It’s wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being,” she said. The language she used resembles that deployed by those who oppose abortion in all circumstances. That is a different issue entirely.

“Killing an innocent human being” suggests that somebody is dying against their own wishes. It also raises the question as to when it is ok to kill a guilty human being. If some people oppose euthanasia on religious grounds, then they should voice their opposition on that basis, as part of a wider discussion as to whether personal religious beliefs should be imposed on society.

Three years ago, another visitor to these shores was prevented from engaging in debate in the issue. Professor Len Doyal travelled from Britain, where he is regarded as an expert on medical ethics. He was invited to speak at an event in Cork organised by the HSE, entitled Why Euthanasia Should Be Legalised.

The event was violently interrupted by a mob shouting religious slogans. The Irish Examiner report on the event referred to some protestors shouting “murderer”, while others recited the “Hail Mary”.

This, along with the stuff propagated by Exit International, is what currently passes for debate on the matter on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Because there is an apparent lack of societal or political will to engage on a serious basis, those at the extremes hijack the issue.

Anecdotally, mercy killings are performed in this country by doctors administering drugs, particularly when the patient is literally at death’s door. When the writer Nuala O’Faolain died a few years ago, her friend Nell McCafferty alleged that euthanasia was widely practiced on an informal basis by doctors, and in hospices. She wasn’t condemning the practice. She just wanted it discussed in a grown up manner. Representatives of both doctors and the hospice movement denied it takes place, but McCafferty wasn’t alone in believing that it is done, and done with the best of intentions at heart.

Serious debate is required. The slippery slope argument against any change is powerful and requires addressing. But the advances of both science and human rights mean it is an issue that won’t go away.

Currently, a couple from Wicklow are in the process of bringing a High Court action to challenge the law on assisted suicide. The woman suffers from multiple sclerosis. While suicide has been decriminalised, anybody assisting in suicide is open to prosecution. Along with Gilsenan’s documentary, the case and the outcome may well spark a public debate that is badly needed.

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