Death highlights an unavoidable issue

Marie Fleming

When she died, aged 42 just five years ago, Susie Long, highlighted the divide in our health systems.

Susie might be alive today had she had private health care. She did not and was buried in October 2007.

When she died yesterday morning, Marie Fleming highlighted — again — a separate issue that no matter how we ignore it, no matter how unnerved or frightened we are by it, simply will not go away. We must confront and resolve it.

The manner of these women’s deaths, and Savita Halappanavar’s — and probably many, many other men and women — says something deeply disconcerting about our society. These deaths suggest we are prepared to accept premature or unnecessarily difficult deaths rather than confront a belief system a great number of us have discarded in so many other spheres of life. For decades we avoided legislating on abortion knowing, in practical if not honourable terms, that a resolution was just an air ticket away. Are we to wait again for the almost inevitable EU court ruling on assisted suicide or non-intervention protocols before we engage with the issues in a meaningful way?

Ms Fleming, 59, died having enduring multiple sclerosis for 25 years. After what must have been a very difficult legal battle for her and her family, the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled against her request to have her partner help her die by suicide. “I’ve come to court today, whilst I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death... in the arms of Tom and my children,” she pleaded.

Her courageous request was rejected and her agony, and that of those who loved her, was prolonged. Nevertheless, the conclusion was inevitable, the path to it was the only thing that could be altered and she was denied that possibility.

Responding to the ruling in the Dáil Taoiseach Enda Kenny said there was nothing he could do. Presumably he was talking about the specific case not the general issue. In any event, the initiative has been taken by independent Waterford deputy John Halligan, who has promised to introduce a bill on the issue early in the new year. Without Government support this bill will eventually run into the sand. It may suit Government to avoid this issue but it does not serve the idea of responsible leadership or governance, rather it undermines it.

Health analysts have warned about escalating rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, just two of the many, many diseases that presage a long, often difficult and undignified road to death. Because of this, it may be an unwise gamble to hope that science will provide the means to manage this growing and frightening prospect.

Assisted suicide is a difficult cultural and philosophical issue but that does not mean we can avoid it — or a decision on allowing people to preclude medical intervention for themselves in certain circumstances.

As optimism around our economic circumstances seems to gather momentum, the prospect of a second term for the Coalition grows stronger every day. These are essentially second-term issues and must be central to any programme offered to the electorate before the next election. After all, confronting difficult issues, reshaping society and managing social evolution would be the greatest expression of the political reform so many of us voted for. It’s time to grasp this nettle.

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