Ten years ago,
Like most people who make such plans, Anne died naturally at the end. But the peace of mind she got from that decision boosted her quality of life during the year and a half before she died.
Since then, I have campaigned for the right to assisted dying. Here is a talk that I gave in Paris two years ago on the issue. You can watch it above, and read it below.
I am particularly pleased to speak here in Paris about the right to die. I first got involved with the Right to Die movement eight years ago, when my late wife Anne Holliday was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Anne and I regularly visited Paris during our twenty five years together. We were in the Stade de France in 1998, when France beat Brazil to win the World Cup. When we got married, after Anne was diagnosed with cancer, we came here to Paris on our honeymoon.
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.
Let me tell you a little about my late wife Anne. We 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 and I campaigned on the losing side when Ireland voted to retain a Constitutional ban on divorce, and on the winning side a decade later. When the Pope announced that it was morally allowed to discriminate against gay rights, we arranged a picket of the Papal Nuncio’s house with placards that read “Equal rights for gays and celibates”.
We founded New Consensus, a peace group that challenged terrorism by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, and promoted a peaceful democratic Northern Ireland based on mutual respect, civil liberty and freely given allegiance to the State.
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 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. That was four years ago. Since then, the Irish Parliament has refused to legislate for this right.
Three years ago, 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.
Right to Die Ireland
Marie’s partner Tom is a personal friend of mine, and is one of the most inspirational campaigners for justice that I have the privilege to know. He was a great source of comfort, empathy and help to Anne and I, when Anne was dying.
After Marie’s court case, 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.
Right to Die Ireland promotes two principles:
- 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.
- The right of 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 later this year.
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 have recently questioned Tom about the nature of his partner Marie’s death, nearly four years after Marie died.
This is not deterring Tom from his principled campaigning. The police have invited him to come in for further questioning. He has refused, and his solicitor has invited the police to arrest him if they want to charge him with a crime.
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.
Exit is now developing an app to test the purity of euthanasia drugs purchased online. This is a crucial issue, as the worst outcome for anybody wanting to die would be to to make a failed attempt and end up alive but brain damaged.
This is another argument for legalising assisted dying, as people would have access to reliable information, as well as psychological counselling that might result in them changing their mind.
Exit is also informing people about a new option for being able to reliably kill yourself without breaking the law. There is a soluble substance, which is used in small amounts as a food preservative, that is legally available in amounts that can kill you.
It is not as peaceful as the illegal Nembutal, as it does not put you to sleep and you would be aware that you are dying, but it is reliable and legally available.
I would like to end with two good news stories.
Firstly, Tom Curran was approached last year by a group of third level students who were doing a University project on the right to die. They interviewed him for a documentary about his and Marie’s lives.
He has recently discovered that the documentary is to be shown in a film festival in a town in Marie’s home County of Donegal, and in the hotel where Marie went on her honeymoon with her first husband.
Secondly, my wife Anne Holliday donated her body for medical education and research. Three years later, her body was buried in the Dublin Medical Schools Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
However, I discovered that the Medical Schools Plot had only one memorial stone for everybody buried there, and that memorial stone had a religious inscription on it, asking people to pray for their souls that they may rest in the peace of God.
I told the Dublin Medical Schools that Anne would not want to have been buried under such a memorial stone. I pointed out that they would not dream of burying a religious person under a memorial stone that said that there is no God.
In a positive move towards an inclusive Ireland, the Dublin Medical Schools respected Anne’s wish for a secular burial. They replaced the decades-old religious memorial stone with a new, neutral inclusive one.
This means that, from now on, when anybody donates their body for medical education and research in Dublin, their loved ones can now remember them at their grave in accordance with their own personal beliefs, whether those beliefs are religious or atheistic, and nobody need feel excluded or marginalised.
It also means that Anne is still helping others through the only afterlife that we know actually exists, not in a comforting but untestable imagined heaven, but in the reality of our memories of how she lived and loved, and our continuation of her life’s work for a peaceful, liberal, secular and caring world.