This week, in a move largely ignored, the case for compassionate lawmaking in Ireland suffered a significant setback.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee delivered what can only be seen as a fatal blow to the cause of allowing people with terminal illnesses to die with dignity.
They decided, in their wisdom, that a bill introduced by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny to grant the right in law for people to end their lives should not be allowed to progress.
The bill, as proposed, sought to allow for the provision of assisted dying to qualifying persons (those suffering from a terminal illness), with the aim of allowing them to achieve a dignified and peaceful end of life.
If enacted, this bill would have given a medical practitioner the legal right to provide assistance to a qualifying person to end their life.
Kenny, in his bill, intended that access to assisted dying would be confined only to those who are suffering from a terminal illness and access would not extend to other vulnerable groups identified by opponents of the bill, which included elderly people, those with mental health issues or those with life-threatening physical illnesses.
The bill had the backing of some high-profile people including Tom Curran, partner of Marie Fleming and Vicky Phelan but, obviously, it had many opponents too.
While conducting pre-committee scrutiny for this bill, the Justice Committee, chaired by Fianna Fail TD James Lawless, received more than 1,400 submissions, relating to legal, medical, personal, academic, faith-based and end-of-life or rights-based perspectives on the provisions contained within the bill.
Some of the main reasons outlined in favour of the proposed bill were:
- Allowing people the autonomy to end their suffering as no one should be forced to go through unbearable pain;
- That the option of assisted dying provides ‘emotional insurance’ to patients, taking away the fear and anxiety they are experiencing and allowing them a better quality of living during their final months;
- International experience demonstrates that safeguards work to protect the vulnerable from being abused by this legislation.
Among the reasons given to oppose the bill included:
- The risk to vulnerable people and the devaluation of their lives;
- The lack of robust safeguards in the proposed legislation;
- That assisted dying undermines anti-suicide messaging;
- That such legislation could provide a ‘slippery slope’ once enacted and future amendments to the bill would broaden the criteria of those who could avail of assisted suicide, to potentially include those with psychiatric illness and children with terminal illnesses.
However, ultimately, the committee determined that the bill in its current form had serious technical issues in several sections, that it may have unintended policy consequences, particularly regarding the lack of sufficient safeguards to protect against undue pressure being put on vulnerable people to avail of assisted dying.
It also concluded that the drafting of several sections of the bill contains serious flaws that could potentially render them vulnerable to challenge before the courts, and that the gravity of such a topic as assisted dying warrants a more thorough examination.
“Therefore, the Select Committee recommends that the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 should not proceed to committee stage but that a Special Oireachtas Committee should be established, at the earliest convenience, to undertake an examination on the topics raised within and which should report within a specified timeframe,” the report concluded.
Speaking privately, committee members said the bill was in such a poor state that in truth it should and could have been killed off.
They said too much work would have had to be done in order to rescue it and this bill is not “fit for purpose” and not the correct vehicle to progress this sensitive matter.
While the wording of that recommendation is clear and sounds like the matter requires a degree of urgency, the truth is, there is no guarantee that this bill will go anywhere now or that any special committee will be established.
In light of the refusal to progress the bill any further, it now falls to the Dáil’s Business Committee to decide whether to agree to set up a special committee to fix it.
I am not hopeful and I’ll tell you why.
They tried to bury it last year when Kenny moved it in the Dáil but because of a cock-up, they lost the vote and the bill progressed into committee against the head.
The Government has a majority on the Business Committee and can easily block the setting up of this new committee.
Also, as has been pointed out, there are a plethora of special committees promised in the programme for government and yet to be established so is there any chance of this bill being prioritised over those?
I think not.
While several members of the committee insisted no Government whip was applied here and that no diktat was issued from on high to kill the bill, the political establishment, conservative and cautious as it is, will be happy to see its demise.
Listening to Vicky Phelan, one could not help but be moved by the testimony of someone who is literally staring death in the eye.
The landmark case taken by Marie Fleming in 2012 and 2013 seeking the right to end her own life, heard of her inability to enjoy any quality of life.
She told of how, assisted by seven carers, she struggled with severe and sometimes unbearable pain, barely managed by medication which left her with distressing side effects. Her doctor had said her mind and forceful clarity were all she had left.
Despite the setback, Kenny has vowed to carry on the fight and seek to either have the bill re-drafted and re-introduced into the Dáil in the autumn, but there is no guarantee if or when that might happen.
Whether it was the dark hand of the establishment or the shoddy state of the bill which led to its demise, a major opportunity to make our society a little more compassionate and caring has been spurned and that is certainly a cause for regret.