The Right to Die is one of the most important rights in an ethical society. But 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.
Like blasphemy, assisted dying is a victimless crime.
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.
We loved each other very much, and we had lived together for twenty five years. Anne was smart, sexy, funny and courageous, she combined her busy career with helping me with mine, 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 right, 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 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.
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, more than three years after Marie died. This is not deterring Tom from his principled campaigning.
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.
Assisted dying is legal to varying extents in Europe in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands,
Luxembourg and Germany; in Japan, in Canada, and in six US States (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California.)
Every month the campaign sees new developments.
In Western Australia, the new Health minister Roger Cook is now calling for euthanasia to be legalised. This follows the death of Clive Deverall, the 75 year old former executive director of the Western Australian Cancer Council, who took his life on March 11 after suffering for 20 years from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In America this week, Pamela Kruspe, whose dementia was worsening, asked her beloved husband of 42 years to kill her. Stephen Kruspe shot her, then rang the police to turn himself in. He is now jailed without bond facing a homocide charge.
In England this week, Noel Conway, a 67 year old man with terminal motor neurone disease, lost a High Court challenge against the law on assisted dying. He argued that the Suicide Act is incompatible with the Human Rights Act, particularly the right to private and family life, and protection from discrimination. Two judges rules against him, and one supported him. He will be appealing the decision.
I would like to end with a good news story. 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.