Elaine Loughlin: Giving others dignity while living and dying is the legacy Vicky deserves

The establishment of a new committee to look at the matter is welcome, but any legislation will be too late for Vicky Phelan, writes Elaine Loughlin
Elaine Loughlin: Giving others dignity while living and dying is the legacy Vicky deserves

Vicky Phelan was met with a standing ovation when she walked on to the Late Late Show on Friday night

THERE aren’t really the words to sum up Vicky Phelan and how strongly the nation feels about her.

At least I can’t find them; every adjective and description seems cliched or inadequate.

Not for the first time, Vicky’s own words punched through the air when she spoke on The Late Late Show last Friday night.

I’ve known for four years that there was always going to be a point where I was going to have to make hard decisions, and I have always known this cancer is incurable. I’ve been realistic about it.

“I don’t want to die; I’m a young woman with young kids,” the CervicalCheck campaigner told host Ryan Tubridy, who at times appeared lost for words himself.

Vicky, who recently came to the difficult decision to stop gruelling chemotherapy that left her “green”, said the quality of life she has with her two children is now more important than quantity.

Quality of life right to the end is what campaigners, including Vicky, have stressed in their support for the Dying with Dignity Bill.

It is just a little over a year since Vicky called on the Government and all TDs to allow her to “die with dignity” by supporting the bill to allow terminally ill people to end their own lives.

During a Dáil debate, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly read the plea from the Limerick-based mother into the record, in which she called on TDs to put aside any personal feelings on the issue.

“I am not choosing between living and dying. My cancer is incurable. The option of living will no longer be available to me in the not-too-distant future,” Mr Kelly told the Dáil on her behalf.

I just want to be allowed to have the choice to control the circumstances of my death, much as I have made decisions about my own life. Do not kick this issue down the road for another 12 months. Please.”

Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the time, she added: “For those people who are opposed to assisted dying, I would ask them to put yourselves in my shoes and imagine what it is like to be me, for even one minute, and how frightening it is to know that I will most likely die in pain.”

The Dying with Dignity Bill had 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.

It would give a medical practitioner the legal right to provide assistance to a qualifying person to end their life.

Vicky Phelan and Ryan Tubridy backstage at the Late Late Show on Friday
Vicky Phelan and Ryan Tubridy backstage at the Late Late Show on Friday

Understandably, it’s a contentious issue, and over 1,400 submissions from legal, medical, faith-based, and human rights groups, as well as members of the public, were received by the Oireachtas justice committee.

After being sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers to ascertain the legal and constitutional implications, justice committee chairman James Lawless found the proposed bill had “serious technical issues”, and “reluctantly” recommended it should not progress in its original format.

While the bill, tabled by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, failed to proceed over the summer, a joint Oireachtas committee on assisted dying, with a duration of nine months, is expected to take up the issue early next year.

It is anticipated that this special committee will hear all sides of the argument before making recommendations on whether legislative change should be implemented.

Other countries have introduced legislation, the most well-known being Switzerland. Assisted dying is permitted in a small number of European countries, Canada, Colombia, and the Victoria state in Australia.

However, a report published this year by the Irish Hospice Foundation found the legislative framework for assisted dying varies considerably among these jurisdictions.

“In all jurisdictions permitting some form of assisted dying, safeguards have been put in place, but again, these vary from one jurisdiction to the next,” the report states. "Safeguards are wide-ranging.

In jurisdictions with relatively high levels of safeguards, such as Victoria and western Australia, a debate is emerging about the extent to which safeguarding is limiting equal access."

Mr Kenny believes, like marriage equality and repealing the eighth amendment, the people of Ireland are ahead of the politicians on this subject, as it is no longer seen as “taboo”.

He recognises that assisted dying is a “very complex area”, but it is very positive that it is being openly discussed and scrutinised in the public sphere.

Vicky Phelan, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly, and TD Gino Kenny during the launch of Dying with Dignity Bill 2020. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Vicky Phelan, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly, and TD Gino Kenny during the launch of Dying with Dignity Bill 2020. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“Public opinion is well ahead of the Dáil in this issue, so it’s up to the Dáil on the cross-party consensus basis now, to bring it forward," he said.

"Obviously, bringing it forward to the committee, that’s a good thing. Hopefully we will see the law changing in this Dáil term. 

"There’s three and a half years, so I would be hopeful that legislation can be changed in the next three and a half years in relation to this, if not sooner.”

The establishment of a new committee to look at the matter will allow for further public discussion, which hopefully will be respectful and informed.

Any legislation will be too late for Vicky, however.

When the time comes, politicians will no doubt stand up and speak of her tireless campaigning, bravery, passion, and compassion.

But words will only be cheap, meaningless blather unless they are backed up with actions.

To steal a quote from another woman on Twitter: 

If our legislators really want to honour the significant contribution Vicky Phelan has made in her short life, they must ensure others like her are treated with dignity in both life and death.

That’s the legacy she deserves.

Did you know?

On the Merrion Square side of Leinster House, a granite obelisk in the middle of the lawn — stretching 18.3m and topped with a gilt bronze flame — welcomes all visitors.

This stone pillar replaced the original cenotaph, designed by George Atkinson and erected in 1923 to mark the first anniversary of the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. It contained plaster medallions of both men by Albert Power.

The far more imposing cenotaph had only been designed as a temporary memorial and was dismantled in 1939 by Éamon de Valera, with the agreement of Fine Gael.

Political week in years gone by

They say a week is a long time in politics, and that certainly was the case back in 1972, our featured year this week.

November 23, 1972: The State broadcaster became embroiled in scandal after the airing of a radio interview with IRA leader Seán Mac Stiofáin. It led to a 14-hour meeting of the RTÉ Authority. However, the Cork Examiner reported that the Government had “already made its decision — a unanimous one”. Ministers were of the belief that the broadcast of the interview, read by RTÉ News features editor Kevin O’Kelly, was in breach of the directive issued the previous year.

The Cork Examiner, November 23, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page
The Cork Examiner, November 23, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page

November 24, 1972: The RTÉ authority was dismissed. “The move, which caused absolute shock in political circles, even though there had been considerable speculation that this would happen, came after a day-long Government meeting to consider the authority’s reply to the ultimatum over the Mac Stiofáin interview,” it was reported at the time.

The Cork Examiner, November 25, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page
The Cork Examiner, November 25, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page

November 26, 1972: RTÉ journalist Kevin O’Kelly was jailed for contempt of court after he refused to identify the interviewee before the judge.

In yet another twist, a garda was shot in the hand, and two bystanders were injured, when an attempt to free Mac Stiofáin from the Mater Hospital, Dublin, was foiled by gardaí. One of eight armed men who took part in what was described as a “daredevil” raid was shot in the chest on November 28. Just a few days after sacking the RTÉ authority, and with the controversy still going on in the background, the fate of the government itself was in the balance. Fine Gael, in opposition, “seemed to have precipitated an impending crisis” for the Government in refusing to allow deputies a free vote on the Offences Against the State Bill, resulting in a 71-71 deadlock.

The Cork Examiner, November 27, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page
The Cork Examiner, November 27, 1972. On the Plinth history sidebar front page

Political week ahead

Tuesday

It will be a busy day in the Dáil, kicking off with the usual Leaders' Questions from midday. However, the Ceann Comhairle, having tested positive for Covid-19, will not be present this week and is self-isolating at home.

In the afternoon, there are statements on the Climate Action Plan. A Sinn Féin motion on the mother and baby homes redress scheme is due to begin at 6.15pm. The motion, which has gained the support of others in the Opposition, comes after significant concerns were raised by survivors, who have said the redress is "paltry and insulting". Finally, education minister Norma Foley will take questions.

Over in the Seanad, there will be statements on pediatric scoliosis services.

Wednesday
The health committee will get a timely update on issues facing acute hospitals and the winter plan.

Covid and the new measures announced last week will also be debated in the Dáil from 5pm.

Meanwhile, the joint committee on enterprise, trade and employment will discuss the Sick Leave Bill 2021 with representative bodies Ibec and Ictu.

Thursday
It's an early start for social protection minister Heather Humphreys who is due to take Dáil questions from 9am.

In the Seanad, the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021, which allows for the setting of rents in rent pressure zones, will go through report and final stages.

The weekly Public Accounts Committee meeting begins at 9.30am and will hear from officials from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to discuss oversight of funding for the European Capital of Culture 2020, which was highlighted in the C&AG's most recent report.

Minister of State Anne Rabbitte will also appear before the committee on disability matters.

This article was originally published on November 23, 2021.

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