HAVE the right to take my own life. The law says so. I have the means to take my own life, too. What the Bernadette Forde and Marie Fleming cases show, however, is that, should I become disabled by stroke or accident, ending my life will cease to be my right.
I can think of no other instance in which a right can be taken away because someone becomes disabled. I can think of no more egregious discrimination against the elderly than the withdrawal of a right because the person has developed an age-related disability.
The consensus around suicide is that it is a preventable tragedy, and, particularly when it comes to younger people, that is the case. It is not necessarily the case when it comes to older people, within whose ranks rests a cohort who take their own lives.
Some of them do it from loneliness and misery which, ameliorated, would be a prevention. But some of them do it, not out of desperation or pain, but out of a sense of completion. “I feel I have lived enough,” was how actor George Sanders put it in his suicide note.
Caroline Moorehead, biographer of war correspondent Martha Gelhorn, who took her own life, has recorded the progress of the writer’s thinking towards self-extinction. Even though Gelhorn was publishing up to a year before she died, even though she had a circle of friends who cared for her with the resilient kindness her verbally abusive nature demanded, she nonetheless found intolerable the constraints age laid on her through deteriorating eye sight and was disturbed by the painful and fearful deaths of some of her friends.
“Why stay until the evil present becomes a worse future and eats away all the value of the past?” she wrote.
Moorhead says that Gelhorn came to see her own possible future suicide as “.. a matter of doing it all neatly and efficiently, in a manner, and at a time, of one’s own choosing, and of facing up to that final moment of understanding that life had become unlivable. That was what she dreaded; the few moments of ‘desperate suffocation, a hell of fear, before unconsciousness’.”
One of the last articles Gelhorn produced — at 86 — appeared in the London Review of Books and addressed the reality of her life: “I have no grasp of time and no control over my memory. I cannot order it to deliver. Unexpectedly, it flings up pictures, disconnected with no before or after. It makes me feel a fool. What is the use in having lived so long, travelled so widely, listened and looked so hard, if, in the end, you don’t know what you know?”
Over time, she came to the view — and shared it with friends — that suicide was a legitimate choice when you no longer had the life you wanted. She made no secret of her intention to take her own life, and believed the act took courage, whereas surviving, while it might be courageous, was, in her view, largely pointless: “[Friends of my] own age seem to me simply beasts of burden…afflicted with age as if it were a disease.”
She cancelled a few appointments, went to the bedroom in the house where she lived alone, put on a clean, silk nightdress, took the pills, got into bed and died there. Although she had a son with whom she was on reasonably good terms, she didn’t tell him. Nor ask for his help. But, then, she didn’t need his help.
In Ireland, someone in a situation similar to Martha Gelhorn’s can legally take their own life, assuming they don’t break the law in accessing the necessary medication.
On the other hand, someone who has gone through the same intellectual process could not take their own life as efficiently and effectively if he or she was in the final stages of MS or motor neurone disease. Nor could they do it if they were paralysed as the result of an accident or if they had been immobilised by a stroke. They might wish to, and they might, because of forethought, have the means to do it, but they could not ask a friend or relative to help them without putting that person in the dock, as Gail O’Rorke was put.
Our law makes criminal anybody who assists in a legal act: it’s legal to end your own life, but illegal for anybody to help you do it. Criminally illegal. The Independent TD, John Halligan, plans to bring forward a bill to remove this sanction from a relative or a doctor who assists someone to kill themselves.
I would hope that the bill, if it gets all-party support and passes, is not restricted to relatives and doctors, remembering that Bernadette Forde depended on friends in this regard.
But I would also hope that it does not miss the point that it is a basic human right to end one’s life. It is not a privilege earned by intolerable suffering.
The fact that Marie Fleming and Bernadette Forde were brought to the point of seeking death by a grievously disabling illness should not lead to the conclusion that such an illness is the only legitimate justification for availing of a right.
Grievously disabling illness may be the reason for requiring assistance, simply because the sick person may not be physically able to get the glass of water, line up the pills and repeatedly lift the glass for swallowing. However, the supportive presence of a third party should not be predicated on such an illness.
f it’s a right, it’s a right. If assistance would make the death easier, then — subject to all relevant safety protocols — such assistance to a human being undertaking a legal act should be available.
In other words, if a modern Irish Gelhorn reached the point where they wanted to die and were physically able to take the necessary actions to achieve that objective, it should be legal for her to have a friend or relative present, if only to hold her hand as she drifts into eternity.
Of course, the law should pursue anybody who nudges someone who is ill towards killing themselves, especially if the nudger stands to benefit from the person’s death. A series of protective guidelines should be in place to ensure the person planning their death can put on record their intent and prove, to the satisfaction of an independent interrogator, that they are not under duress or influence.
An older person who independently decides against allowing “an evil present to become a worse future and eat away all the value of the past” should be able to have a loving friend or relative present without endangering that friend or relative.