A secular state should not object to the human right to assisted suicide

To kill yourself is no longer illegal. It is a human right, writes Terry Prone
A secular state should not object to the human right to assisted suicide

t’s a fair bet that lobbyists, in the last two weeks, have been reaching Independent TDs to try to get their interests reflected in the new programme for Government. Just a bet. But here’s two certainties. Missing from those lobbyist delegations is one woman. And her cause is arguably more important than any of the others.

The woman — Kate Tobin — was profiled in this newspaper in the last few days. She’s had an interesting life and career. Multiple sclerosis put paid to both.

“I am constantly in pain,” she told Irish Examiner journalist Joe Leogue. “And my speech is going. I used to be able to walk with a stick, but now I need a frame and for any long distances I use a wheelchair.”

When Kate was in the earlier stages of MS, she watched, in horror, the saga of Marie Fleming, who, along with her partner, fought for her right to die at a time and using a method of her own choosing. Euthanasia, in other words.

Marie Fleming’s cased failed in the courts, but it raised the issue in a new and personal way. The nation was briefly transfixed by her suffering, by her perfectly rational desire to end her own life and by the fact that her disease had moved beyond the point at which she could take an overdose unaided.

If someone helped her, they would be arrested and possibly charged with unlawful killing.

The case died. Marie Fleming died. And interest in the issue died, too, which is puzzling. The suffering goes on. Many, perhaps most, people suffering from diseases such as motor neurone, multiple sclerosis, and terminal cancer, want to eke out the last moment of life and the last drop of hope available to them. They do not want to take their own lives, with or without help.

Some of them get to that position because of their faith. People of deep religious convictions, including traditional Catholics, believe it is sinful to take your own life, because it doesn’t belong to you.

It belongs to God and he will call you when he wants you. To which point Kate Tobin, herself once a sister of religion, and currently a practicing Catholic, albeit one who can’t get to Mass, responds with a curious blend of bluntness and optimism.

“To the religious fanatics I would say that if I die before God is expecting me, I don’t think he will greet me in heaven and say: ‘Sorry, Kate, you weren’t due here yet.’ ”

Now, perhaps we should get the ‘religious fanatics’ issue out of the way at this point. If you were brought up to believe that your life belongs to God and that you have no right to end it unilaterally, then that is how you must live and how you must die.

In some circumstances, it may require great courage and suffering of you. More power to you if you deliver on the tough demands of your faith.

You may further believe that suffering ennobles the sufferer and those around him or her, in which case you will go out of this life persuaded that your suffering has significance and merit.

You are entitled to this demanding belief, too, and to be admired for it. What you are not entitled to is to assume that the rest of Ireland shares that belief. I don’t. I have seen agony bravely borne.

But I have never seen anybody ennobled by suffering and, as a result, have no faith in the notion of gritted-teeth heroism as improving the lives of those who witness it.

Furthermore, I do not believe that what your God is going to say to you after you die has anything to do with how the secular state should approach the rights-based issue of taking your own life.

The state used to categorise suicide as a crime, which is one of the reasons Ireland’s statistics in this regard were so skewed for so long: Official Ireland can turn a blind eye to the obvious if the blind eye is kinder to the survivors. So the deceased person lost their life through accident or illness. Not by suicide.

However, to kill yourself is no longer illegal. It is a human right. For the able-bodied. It is a human right from which those who are not able-bodied are excluded.

Let’s take an example. Let us assume you have enough sleeping pills to take your own life, then — if you can move around, get yourself your store of drugs and enough water to take them with — you can vindicate that right at any time.

If you have enough sleeping pills, but as a result of a stroke, say, or an accident, or the final stages of a profoundly disabling disease, you cannot reach them and take them, then that human right is taken from you.

No argument. If you are disabled, then you no longer have that right.

That’s a form of inequality I want addressed. This does not run counter to the efforts of suicide prevention charities.

If we can ensure better mental health, less abuse of alcohol, and reduce the number of deaths by suicide as a result, this would be a wonderful thing. But it is an issue separate from the right to take your life with the assistance of someone else.

What I would like to see is a system where you can go and register your intention to possibly take your own life at some point in the future, where you can at the same time nominate the person or people you might want to assist you, were you to be disabled at the time when your desire to enjoy your life becomes urgent and imperative.

The people nominated would have to agree to assist in the ending of a life, and that would require much thought on their part.

They might have to be investigated in advance to ensure that they had no financial interest in assisting your early exit from life. Checks and balances would need to be built in at every point.

If enough checks and balances were written into an enabling law, it would prevent the ‘slippery slope’ argument, which holds that if we facilitate people with physical disabilities to take their own lives, or provide assistance to those with terminal illnesses to meet death sooner than would naturally happen, we are fated to end by exterminating the frail, the elderly, the speechless, and the unprotected. One does not have to follow the other.

Nor should such a law be predicated on a limiting illness.

If someone who is physically healthy in old age, for example, decides they want out of life but that they want the company of someone they trust as they drift into eternity, to provide that simple atavistic comfort of a warm hand holding theirs, they shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that their desire for death is caused by disabling illness. It’s none of the state’s business.

What should of concern to all TDs is the possibility of removing gratuitous suffering from the lives of people like Kate Tobin. Quickly.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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