We have a tradition of ignoring difficult subjects until that is no longer tenable. That dodging, that deflecting silence, may be understandable, but it is hardly admirable or honest.
Generations of politicians were hardwired to change the subject as soon as contraception, divorce, abortion, or marriage equality were mentioned. It was, and still is, hard to blame them. They recognised what were no-win situations. Their constituents were bitterly divided on those subjects and no matter what position a politician took, highly-emotional hostility was assured. For far too long, we hid behind a Hiberno version of our neighbour’s fail-safe: “Don’t mention the war.”
Some more adroit politicians streamlined that and made that old Irish advice real: “If you must say something, say nothing.” Despite that reticence, change eventually came, as it always does.
For many years, we have been at that duck-and-dodge point about the difficult actions needed to confront climate change. Our reluctance to even discuss the cultural compromise necessary if a reunited Ireland, spurred by a hard Brexit, moves closer to possibility is another example.
Later this month, another difficult subject returns to the frontline of debate. The Dying With Dignity Bill, introduced by John Halligan in 2015, will be brought before the Dáil by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny.
The Government might oppose the bill, though Green Party figures have indicated support. Whether their influence is enough to have it considered, much less moved to the next stage, remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, there is growing momentum behind the idea that terminally ill people should be allowed to choose to die with dignity before nature’s inevitable, painful, course plays out.
Seven years ago, Tom Curran and his wife, Marie Fleming, took a case to the Supreme Court to establish her right to end her life. Their arguments were rejected in April 2013. Ms Fleming died eight months later, 36 years after contracting MS.
There are very many Marie Flemings, and their families, struggling today to find empathy and kindness in legislation that denies them choice while prolonging suffering.
The Supreme Court pointed out there was nothing to stop the Oireachtas legislating for assisted suicide, once reliable safeguards were in place, yet that option remains unused. That is no longer admirable or right.
Various responses apply in various countries. Palliative sedation, but not euthanasia, is allowed in France. This allows a terminally ill person to request deep sedation until they die. In the Netherlands, euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal if the patient is enduring unbearable suffering and there is no prospect of improvement. Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, and Colombia allow euthanasia and assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is more widely available than euthanasia.
People can choose to end their life this way in Switzerland and in US states including California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and the District of Columbia.
The time has come, despite myriad other challenges, to face this fraught, tragic reality.