** This is a trigger warning. Please do not read if you are triggered by the subject of Assisted Suicide **
Brittany Maynard from California was diagnosed with a Stage Four inoperable brain tumour in January 2014. Faced with the prospect of losing all cognitive function, Maynard moved from California to Oregon to avail of assisted suicide laws. Her death was announced on 2 November, mere hours after she announced that she had decided to postpone the original date 1 November. A fervent campaigner for the ‘Dying With Dignity’ movement in the US, Maynard’s death has once again forced us to examine the stance of assisted suicide in Ireland: is it ever acceptable to end your own life, or to ask a loved one to assist you in doing so?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines assisted suicide as ‘the suicide of a patient suffering from an incurable disease, effected by the taking of lethal drugs provided by a doctor for this purpose.’ Policymakers in the UK are on the verge of passing a law (the Assisted Dying Bill) that would allow those who assist a loved ones’ suicide to be granted immunity from prosecution. In Ireland, however, assisted suicide is still illegal under the Criminal Law Suicide Act. Although the act decriminalised suicide in 1993, abetting a suicide carries a punishment of approximately fourteen years in prison.
This controversial topic was explored in 2013 when the Supreme Court denied Marie Fleming, whose MS caused her constant pain and suffering, the right to end her life with the help of her partner Tom Curran. Fleming had argued that not being able to enlist help in taking her own life was in breach of her human rights, but according to the ruling, the Constitution acknowledges the right to life, but not the right to die. Also, had Tom Curran assisted his partner in committing suicide, he would not be immune from prosecution. Although Fleming died peacefully in her sleep on 21 December 2013, this was coincidental; it was still not the death of her choosing.
Fleming’s high-profile case forced Ireland to confront the prospect of assisted suicide, a subject which has gained much media attention in both the UK and Ireland in the last two years. On 17 October 2014, veteran presenter Gay Byrne, speaking about the proposed UK Assisted Dying Bill to Stephen Nolan on BBC Ulster, said: ‘My dread would be that I would lie a long time in awful pain and disability. I’d rather it happened very, very quickly’. Byrne is not the first Irish celebrity to openly share his views on the subject of assisted suicide; in 2013, Derek Mooney stated that he wants to take his own life if his health deteriorates in old age, and because he is afraid of loneliness.
The attention given by the Irish media to assisted suicide has been intensified by plans to legalise it in the UK. In May 2014, British chat show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan revealed that they have made plans to assist each other’s suicide should the need arise. On 13 May 2014, Madeley told The Guardian ‘If Judy was ill and in illogical pain, I wouldn’t give a tuppenny if there was a risk of being prosecuted. I’d do what was right for my wife.’
This exact scenario was played out in Coronation Street last year, when the character of Hayley Cropper had a brain tumour, which failed to respond to chemo. She decided that she wanted to end her life on her own terms, much to the bewilderment of her husband Roy, who adored her. It was this love that enabled him to assist Hayley in her dying wish, even though Roy consequently suffered from anguish and despair long after her death. While Hayley was passionate about the right to die, Roy was insistent that his wife’s life should end naturally, which is representative of how emotive the subject of assisted suicide can be.
Furthermore, the history and circumstances surrounding assisted suicide means that the issue is complicated and will always be surrounded in controversy. Mooney’s reasons for contemplating assisted suicide are potentially damaging to the psyche of our society. Many of us have had to watch an elderly relative or friend suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s and die a painful death. Often, it may seem like the kinder option to ‘put them out of their misery’.
However, it is difficult to forget that, less than a century ago, the Nazi regime ordered the involuntary euthanasia of thousands of children and later adults with disabilities across Europe during the Second World War. Those against the ‘right to die’ movement, which often include disability activists and supporters of rights for the elderly, worry that promoting the right to die will shift the focus from the provision of proper support services and palliative care, and start a descent down a ‘slippery slope’ that could be difficult to come back from. Dutch ethicist and former euthanasia supporter Theo Boer argues that ‘euthanasia is on the way to becoming a “default” way of dying for cancer patients’ and observes that doctors may come under pressure to grant access to lethal drugs on the basis of being ‘aged, lonely or bereaved’.
Assisted suicide has been legalised in five countries in the EU, including Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Albania and Japan. Dignitas, an organisation based in Switzerland, performs voluntary euthanasia procedures, namely in the form of a lethal overdose, which induces a coma and, subsequently, death. Eight people have travelled from Ireland since 1998 to end their lives, one of which was in January 2014. Dignitas has been nicknamed a ‘suicide tourism destination’ by the media, and it is argued by many ‘right to die’ supporters that having to go abroad in order to avail of these services renders them inaccessible for those who are too far along in their illness to travel, or who simply cannot afford to do so.
It is interesting to note, however, that 70% of people who visit Dignitas clinics for an initial consultation never return to their clinics, which suggests that once faced with the reality of death, many people either change their minds or take their own lives. For many, it seems that the right to choose how and when they die may be more important than the ending of life itself.
Whether it is perceived as a religious, human rights or a medical issue, it is clear that the introduction of assisted suicide in Ireland is currently being explored, and it is an issue that will not magically disappear. Should this law ever be enacted, it is the responsibility of our lawmakers to ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. However, before we do this, we need to take it upon ourselves to ensure that our medical and community services are equipped to meet the needs of our elderly, disabled and ill citizens, so that assisted suicide can be offered in addition to, and not instead of, a comfortable quality of life.