The right to die

Suicide law in Ireland has been a hot topic this year. Marie Fleming, a multiple sclerosis patient in the later stages of the illness, is seeking the right to commit suicide with the help of her long-term partner Tom Curran. She does not want her partner receiving criminal charges for assisting her in her dying wish, and went before the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns in Dublin to battle it out.

Attempted suicide is no longer a criminal offense in Ireland since it was decriminalised in 1993. While self-harm is not seen as a form of attempted suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia are still illegal under Irish law. This however was challenged at the High Court in December 2012.

Marie Fleming, 59 and former university lecturer, is in the last stage of MS, with very limited mobility and a variety of other symptoms. This type of MS is characterised by a gradual progression of the illness from its onset with no remissions all. Marie was diagnosed in 1986 and is now stuck in a wheelchair due to paralysed limbs and acute pain. It makes her dependent upon others for care and support, which means that major life changes were required.

Because of this, Mrs Fleming was looking to have the right to end her life the way she so wishes, with the help of a physician at a time of her choosing. Marie also argues that she wants it to be her own rational choice when she finds her life not to be valuable anymore. Mrs Fleming argues that the strict ban on assisted suicide is unconstitutional and goes against the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since her dignity, autonomy and privacy is violated. Where able-bodied people are allowed to commit suicide, severely disabled people are denied the same treatment, and therefore discriminatory. Marie as a result wanted the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidance outlining which factors would be taken into account in deciding whether to prosecute assisted suicide.

As a MS patient myself, I try to understand why Marie Fleming wants to have legal rights to end her life the way she wishes to do. While I am nowhere near the stage Marie is in, it does beg the question why assisted suicide cannot be decriminalised. It makes me question my own future and wonder if there will be rights in place in regards to euthanasia if I would wish to end my life respectfully. I am firmly against suicide, and I fight hard to get nowhere near the stage Marie is in. Nevertheless, questions do linger. Will my dignity be put to the test when I draw my last breath? Will my family have to put up with me when they should lead their own lives, regardless of my illness and/or autonomy? Should whomever assisting me in my dying wish be sent to jail for helping me because the Irish constitution says so?

A competent adult has the right to refuse medical treatment even if death would be the outcome. Actively putting this death in the hands of another party is considered a totally different matter according to the three judges presiding over Mrs Fleming’s case. It “would be impossible to make sure the aged, the disabled, the poor, the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, the impulsive, the financially compromised and emotionally vulnerable would not avail of this option to avoid a sense of being a burden on their family and society”. (http://www.personalinjuries.ie/page10.php?post=9)

“An absolute ban on assisted suicide is justified to protect vulnerable people from involuntary death and does not breach personal autonomy and equality rights under the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights”. (http://www.personalinjuries.ie/page10.php?post=9)

For these reasons, the court rejected the constitutional claim and as Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, with Mr Justice Paul Carney and Mr Justice Gerard Hogan said, “unraveling “even a thread” of the ban, by even a limited constitutional finding in favour of Ms Fleming, would, or might, “open a Pandora’s box which thereafter would be impossible to close.”

Needless to say, the media also had a lot to say about this. Newspapers, talk shows and anyone who had something to say about it, did. We were openly asked if we can include a partner, a doctor, a friend or someone else in our right to die. From my experience, most people said yes, euthanasia should be allowed in certain cases, including assisted suicide.

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