Life and death after Marie Fleming’s right-to-die Supreme Court Appeal

Tom and MarieMarie Fleming is this week asking the Irish Supreme Court to allow her to be assisted in dying peacefully, instead of being forced to live through the final stages of multiple sclerosis.

She is appealing against a High Court decision that upheld the current ban on assisted suicide, because the legal right to assisted dying might be abused.

Marie and her partner Tom Curran are among the most inspirational people I have had the privilege to know. The High Court judgment said that Marie was in many ways the most remarkable witness which any member of the Court has ever been privileged to encounter.

High Court judgment

Marie was looking for the right to be assisted to die on two constitutional grounds. Under Article 40.3.2, the State must vindicate the personal autonomy of every citizen. And under Article 40.1, she has the right to equality, but able-bodied people can legally commit suicide without assistance, while she requires assistance to do so because of her illness, and assisting suicide is a crime.

The High Court accepted that the ban interferes with her rights, but found that the interference is not disproportionate. It found that the risks of liberalization is that it would be impossible to ensure that there would not be abuse by other people of vulnerable people.

Supreme Court appeal

Marie’s legal team is now arguing at the Supreme Court that the possibility of abuse could not mean a right as fundamental as hers could be restricted, and that the State’s interest in the sanctity of her life could not prevent her bringing about the kind of death she seeks.

They are arguing that the High Court was mistaken to use as a legal test that there was a “substantial consensus” in western countries that an absolute ban was the “best approach” to protecting life and vulnerable people.

Instead, they say, the correct test should be whether such a ban impaired rights as little as possible and did not impose a disproportionate burden on one group.

And the Irish Human Rights Commission has told the Court it believes Marie has a right, subject to strict conditions, to be assisted in taking her own life.

Life and death after the case

Whatever the outcome of this week’s appeal, the human situation will remain the same for Marie and her parter Tom Curran. Tom is prepared to go to prison if Marie decides to die and he helps her because they love each other.

The High Court did say that it felt sure that the Director of Public Prosecutions, in this of all cases, would exercise her discretion in a humane and sensitive fashion. But that is no basis on which to reassure or give peace of mind to Marie and Tom.

Ultimately, this is an issue where the Courts and the legislators have to catch up with reality. The courts are not in control of what terminally ill people will choose to do, because terminally ill people have their own ethical priorities and their own autonomy. But neither Tom nor Marie, nor anybody else in their situation, should have to face that pressure.

Right to Die Ireland

Tom Curran is a personal friend of mine. He was a great support to my late wife Anne Holliday and I when Anne was dying of cancer. Anne had made preparations to take her life if she needed to, but she died naturally – as do most people who make such preparations.

The right to die is not just about the act of dying. It is also about the peace of mind and quality of life that terminally ill people can enjoy, while they are still alive, by knowing that they have the option to choose not to undergo further suffering.

Tom also chairs the Irish branch of Exit International, which supports other Irish people facing this dilemma. Last year, Tom and I and civil rights activist Mairin de Burca decided to establish a lobby group to seek legislative change in Ireland on this issue.

When Marie’s court case is over, Right to Die Ireland will begin a public campaign to for legislation to regulate assisted dying. Please join us and help to respect the dignity, and reduce the suffering, of Marie and others in her situation, please sign up on the Right to Die Ireland Facebook page.

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