The Campaign for the Right to Assisted Dying

I gave this speech today, Saturday March 2019, at the Days of Atheism Conference in Warsaw, Poland.

I spoke yesterday about the progress that we have made in Ireland in recent years on secular issues. The Catholic Church no longer controls the Irish people. Our task now is getting the State to catch up with that reality.

So far we have removed the Constitutional bans on same sex marriage, abortion, and blasphemy. In each of these referendums, the Irish people have voted by two to one for the liberal position.

But we have a lot more to do. The Catholic Church still runs 90 per cent of our State-funded primary schools. And our laws still ban assisted dying, even though the Supreme Court has decided that the Government has the right to legislate for it.

I first got involved in the Right to Die campaign a decade ago, when my late wife Anne Holliday was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Anne and I loved each other very much for a quarter of a century. Anne was smart, sexy, funny and courageous, she was loving and loyal to her family and friends, and she campaigned to build a peaceful, liberal, secular and caring Ireland.

Anne did not want to die, but nor did she fear death. She was grateful to have had enough notice of her death to be able to do many things that she wanted to do first. And she wanted to die peacefully and painlessly rather than have to suffer needlessly before dying.

She had decided that, if she had reached that stage, she would have ended her own life and I would have have helped her to do this. Once she had made that decision, her quality of life soared and we were able to fully enjoy the time she had left.

Like most people who make the decision to be able to take their own lives, Anne died naturally in the end. She was told she had six months to live, but she lived for a year and a half, and we made the most of that precious time together.

This is one of the most important things that opponents of the Right to Die movement do not understand. The right to die is not about the act of dying. It is about the extra quality of life and peace of mind that you have while you are still alive.

When Anne was dying, we met Tom Curran, whose partner Marie Fleming did not want to live through the final stages of multiple sclerosis. She argued that suicide was lawful in Ireland, but that she was discriminated against on the ground of her disability, because she could not exercise her right to commit suicide without assistance.

Marie took her case as far as the Irish Supreme Court. The Court ruled that, despite suicide being lawful, there is no Constitutional right either to suicide or to arrange for the termination of one’s own life.

However, the Court did say that the Parliament could legislate to allow assisted dying, if it included safeguards to ensure that the law was not abused. Since then, the Irish Parliament has refused to legislate for this right.

Also since then, Marie died as she wanted to. She did not have to undergo the unnecessary suffering that she wanted to avoid. But not everybody is as lucky. Not everybody has the psychological resources and support network that Marie and Anne had.

We are still lobbying in Ireland for the legal right to assisted dying.

Right to Die Ireland promotes two principles:

  1. The right of terminally or seriously ill people, who want to live as long as they can, to get the best possible medical resources that are available to enable them to do this. Nobody should be forced to die earlier than they want to, and the law should have strong safeguards to protect this right.
  2. The right of rational terminally or seriously ill people, who want to die peacefully at a time of their choosing, to be supported in carrying out this wish. Nobody should be forced to endure unnecessary suffering, particularly when it is a question not of whether they will die but of how and when.

Before the last Irish election, an independent member of the Irish Parliament proposed an assisted dying bill. Unfortunately, and ironically, he is now in Government and has had to drop his bill as it is not in line with Government policy.

We are now working with different opposition members of the Irish Parliament to propose a similar bill.

Tom Curran is now the European spokesperson of Exit International, which supports other people facing this dilemma. One consequence of this is that the Irish police questioned Tom about the nature of his partner Marie’s death, nearly four years after Marie died.

This has complicated our political lobbying in Ireland, so for a while Tom has focused his attention on promoting assisted dying in other countries.

Exit International’s vision is that every adult of sound mind has the right to implement plans for the end of their life so that their death is reliable, peaceful and at a time of their choosing.

Before I came here, I asked Tom for a quick update on this work. He says that progress is mixed.

There are new Bills in progress in half a dozen more states in America.

Canada is working out well. The vetting process seems good, and there are no signs that it is being abused.

In the United Kingdom, the Board of the British Medical Association has opposed assisted dying, but its members recently voted by 60/40 to stop opposing it.

In Southern Australia, nobody has been able to avail of assisted dying in six months because restrictions are so tight.

But last year an Australian scientist, 104 year old David Goodall, availed of assisted dying in Switzerland despite not being ill. This tested the limits of the need for medical records. The police investigated but did not press charges.

There are also advances in the technology. Exit International is working on a new process with a capsule of liquid nitrogen rather than nembutal. Dignitas recently use nembutal by infusion instead of swallowing.

Having lived through Anne’s dying, I understand at first hand why the Right to Die is one of the most important rights in an ethical society. But in Ireland, as in most countries, love and empathy and compassion and justice are frustrated by the law.

Every year, many good people face an ethical dilemma between lawful suffering and unlawful compassion. And they face it at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and need the most support.

Ultimately, this is an issue where the Courts and the law 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.

While that happens, we will continue to lobbying so that they can do so legally rather than illegally.

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