Daniel McConnell: Dignity law would have allowed Marie Fleming die in peace

Relatives watch their loved ones face into their final days and experience such cruelty because of a national failure to treat them as adults and allow them to determine their fate, writes Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Dignity law would have allowed Marie Fleming die in peace

Tom Curran and Marie Fleming on one of their harrowing visits to the Four Courts in 2013, when the High Court and the Supreme Court rejected Marie’s bid to lawfully receive assistance dying. She died later that year. First introduced by John Halligan, the Dying with Dignity Bill aims to permit assisted dying under certain circumstances. Picture: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Should you have the right to die with dignity?

Should you as a conscious being be able to determine how you exit this world?

Or should the status quo continue which will see terminally ill people forced to endure an often miserable and very painful end to their lives?

For people suffering from conditions for which there is no cure, the realisation that they are dying is frightening enough.

To have to endure that fate where morphine no longer dulls your cancer pain in your bones, or you become so incapacitated that your quality of life is seriously undermined, is it right that you endure the slow demise without any recourse to your own personal dignity?

Relatives have to watch their loved ones face into their final days and experience such cruelty and inhumanity because of a national failure to treat them like adults and determine their own fate.

In July, former Independent Alliance minister, John Halligan, wrote a powerful piece on these opinion pages about the issue of assisted dying.

Mr Halligan, before becoming a minister, had championed a bill seeking to introduce assisted dying into Ireland.

In that piece, he referenced Tom Curran and his wife Marie Fleming who would ultimately take a case to the Supreme Court to seek the right to end her life.

Marie's case was rejected by the Supreme Court in April 2013. 

However, the presiding judge did note there was nothing to stop the Oireachtas from legislating to allow for assisted suicide once it was satisfied that appropriate safeguards could be put in place.

Following Marie’s death in December of that year, and with Tom's encouragement, Mr Halligan began drafting the Dying with Dignity Bill.

As he outlined: “The draft bill was completed in 2015 and introduced as a private member's bill but, due to the collapse of the government the following year and my subsequent appointment as a minister of state, I was not able to move it forward for debate. 

Former Independent Alliance minister, John Halligan
Former Independent Alliance minister, John Halligan

"I tried many times to liaise with other politicians but, despite productive conversations, none would take ownership of the work that had been done.” 

This week, Ciara Doherty’s interview of Vicky Phelan on Virgin Media One left viewers with much food for thought. Ms Phelan, in an incredibly candid interview, discussed her view on the need for assisted dying in Ireland.

"Unfortunately, in my position, I wouldn't be able to get on a plane and go to Switzerland or Oregon because I wouldn't get there because I'm known at this stage," she said of travelling outside of Ireland for the procedure, which is illegal here.

"I wouldn't like to do that because I want to die in my own country," she said. "I don't want to have to go somewhere else and have my poor family travel over there and then travel back with a coffin.

"People should have a choice," she said, referring to having the right to die. 

"I know from having witnessed and heard from other people who have gone before me with this disease that it's not a nice way to go and I have young children — and that's the thing: It's different if you're in your 80s and you've lived your life, but if you're young and you have children watching you die ... I've seen people die and it's not a nice thing to witness."

"I don't want my children's memories to be of me dying."   

Ms Phelan became visibly upset when she said she can't bring herself to discuss the distant future. She recalled a visit to London last autumn with her daughter Amelia, who said she would love to go to college there.

"I remember that night going to bed and I got upset because I thought 'God, I'm not going to be here’. I have to pull myself back from those [thoughts] because I can't go too far ahead. That's when I lose it,” she said.

She spoke movingly about the “horrible end” that her friend, fellow cervical cancer campaigner Ruth Morrissey endured in her final months, and the treatment she went through.

John Halligan's frustration that political circumstances scuppered his bill will be tempered by the news that a TD has stepped into the fray.

Gino Kenny, the Solidarity–People Before Profit TD has taken up the baton and has been granted leave to introduce the bill in the Dáil on Tuesday, September 15.

Mr Kenny says he has always wanted to advance the cause of assisted dying — he corrected me when I used the phrase 'assisted suicide' — and is glad he will have the opportunity to debate it this month.

Acknowledging people will have strong views on this matter, Mr Kenny argues that his bill would only make the provision of assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill.

“This bill would be very restrictive, and nobody would be under any obligation to go this route. The reality is that palliative care only goes so far, and some people will have a painful end,” he says.

Under the bill, which I have seen, those who seek to do this must be in a position where their illness can’t be stopped. 

Two medical practitioners, including one independent doctor, must agree that the person meets the criteria. Then when the approval is given, a cooling-off period of 14 days begins in case the person changes their minds.

“There is oversight all the time. This is for a small number of people in very limited circumstances,” Mr Kenny says.

To the primary fear that elderly people could be coerced into this process because of predatory relatives, Kenny says there is little or no evidence that this actually happens.The status quo is not working.

Far from protecting the public interest, the status quo has brought great harm to those who have been left to suffer in agony in their final days.

Not to trivialise what is a highly sensitive matter, but domestic pets are shown more dignity at the end of their lives.

As things stand, the status quo says that as an individual, you should forget that you should be entitled to a dignified death. 

“It is unbearable to think that somebody is going to die and that their suffering should be prolonged,” Mr Halligan wrote in his article. 

“Assisted dying is different to same-sex marriage and termination of pregnancy, though. It is the most personal decision that can be made,” he added.

As a society, since 2015 we have made huge steps in becoming a more tolerant and compassionate people.

The time has come to extend that debate to consider allowing people to determine how they leave this earth with a meaningful degree of dignity. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand.

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