FATE DEALT Bernadette Forde savage blows, but the State also ensured that her final days and hours were lacking peace of mind, writes Michael Clifford.
Ms Forde died on June 5, 2011, after taking a fatal dose of a toxic substance. She recorded a final message, because her disability had robbed her of the capacity to write.
Such a testament, from a person about to end their own life, usually accesses the deepest truths of their psyche. Bernadette Forde wasn’t allowed that final rite of passage. She was compelled to be dishonest in her recording, not for any nefarious reasons, but simply out of love, and worry.
She was 51 years of age and suffering from a severe strain of multiple sclerosis. On the recording, she outlined the extent to which her disability had rendered her life no longer worth living.
“I just can’t live with this anymore, it’s just… my life is shit.”
She complained that the prospect of criminal sanction prevented any of her friends or relatives from assisting her in ending her life.
That realisation had come about as a result of an attempt, two months earlier, to travel to Zurich to attend the Dignitas clinic, which assists people in taking their own lives.
On that occasion, her friend, Gail O’Rorke, had attempted to buy plane tickets, but she had been intercepted by the gardaí, who had been made aware, through the travel agent, of the purpose of the flight.
The incident had brought home to Bernadette Forde that she may be exposing friends to a criminal charge.
In her final recording, she emphasised that she was now acting alone.
“That I can’t even talk to anybody, in case they are implicated, because I have no help at all now and it’s very difficult that I can’t even talk to anybody.”
She outlined how she had acquired the toxic substance.
“I eventually managed to get hold of this stuff from Mexico. I was able to order it online and it was delivered to me by courier… and I do intend to do it, but I can’t let anybody know.”
Evidence heard at the trial of Gail O’Rorke, which ended with an acquittal last Tuesday, suggested that the above statements were untrue.
Ms O’Rorke faced three charges, all related to assisting Ms Forde in taking her own life. It was the first prosecution under the law banning assisted suicide.
The judge directed the jury to find her not guilty on two charges, and they acquitted on the third after seven hours of deliberation.
The court heard evidence suggesting a number of friends and relatives were aware that Ms Forde was about to take her own life.
Gail O’Rorke told the gardaí that on the morning of Sunday, June 5, a number of people had visited Ms Forde’s apartment in Donnybrook, including her sister and niece, who were “trying to hold it together”.
She also said that she had arranged the money transfer to Mexico to buy the lethal drugs, although, she said, she only found out later the nature of the contents of the package.
Ms O’Rorke also told the guards that Ms Forde had arranged, and paid, for her to stay in a hotel in Kilkenny on the day in question, so she wouldn’t be implicated.
“I knew there was a good chance that I would ring on Monday and she wouldn’t answer the phone.”
Ms O’Rorke said that, contrary to Ms Forde’s recording, she was not alone at the end. Another friend was with her.
They had a few drinks before Ms Forde ingested the substance, and there was a brief moment of panic, when she thought there would be no reaction, before she finally lost consciousness.
So much of what Ms Forde left in her final recording was inaccurate. Instead of using the open space for preparation and reflection in her time of dying, she was forced to invest energy on inventing a narrative to ensure her loved-ones would not be faced with 14 years in prison.
The trial of Gail O’Rorke was a surreal exercise. Prosecution, defence, and the trial judge, Pat McCartan, all emphasised that the charges were no reflection of the defendant’s character.
“Gail O’Rorke is an exceptionally decent person,” prosecution counsel, Remy Farrell, told the jury. “There can be no doubt that everything she did was informed out of loyalty, out of love, for Ms Forde.”
The prosecution was taken months after the Supreme Court ruled, in 2013, in the case of Marie Fleming, that the law against assisted suicide was not unconstitutional.
On that occasion, the court pointed out that it would be open to the DPP to exercise discretion in taking a prosecution in light of pertaining circumstances.
In Britain, for instance, the prosecution service has issued guidelines to indicate that it will not prosecute for assisted suicide in particular circumstances.
“The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect, rather than the characteristics of the victim,” according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Under such a system, people like the late Marie Fleming and Bernadette Forde could be confident that loved-ones would not face any repercussions for assisting them in ending their lives.
At the same time, the retention of the ban on assisted suicide in Britain ensures that any circumstances that give rise to suspicion or doubt about the motivation can still be subject to prosecution.
The prosecution of Gail O’Rorke indicates that the DPP (ie, in this jurisdiction) is more inclined to operate strictly under the law, rather than apply discretion or issue guidelines.
In fact, one could read the prosecution as a warning from the DPP’s office to the legislature that the ball is firmly in its court.
The case must surely ratchet up pressure on the legislature to deal with the matter. Issues of conscience, like this, have long brought out the most cowardly aspect of the body politic.
Action is consistently avoided, lest some small, but vocal, section of the electorate kicks up blue murder.
Now, Independent TD John Halligan plans to introduce a private member’s bill on assisted suicide.
At the very least, this should prompt an open and full debate in the Dail, preferably culminating in some sort of legislation on the matter.
It is no longer tenable that citizens unable, or unwilling, to endure needless suffering, or their loved-ones, should be subjected to cruel indifference by the State.
While fate was unkind to Bernadette Forde, it is now obvious that she was fortunate to be surrounded by people who loved her and respected her decision to end her life.
No more should people like Ms Forde, and their loved-ones, have their suffering and grief hugely exacerbated by an unwillingness of lawmakers to face up to the realities of modern life. No more.
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