Ruling on assisted suicide batted problem back to politicians

Analysis: Gilmore says legislators must deal with issue

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore yesterday paid tribute to Marie Fleming and praised her “brave and courageous campaign”. Photograph: PA Wire

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore yesterday paid tribute to Marie Fleming and praised her “brave and courageous campaign”. Photograph: PA Wire

Sat, Dec 21, 2013, 01:00

Marie Fleming wasn’t the first person to raise the question of how Irish society should approach assisted suicide, but with the moral force and human dignity that drove her campaign all the way to the Supreme Court last winter, she pushed the issue front and centre of public consciousness.

It’s unlikely to go away. With advances in medicine and technology helping people to live longer, across the world politicians and judges are increasingly grappling with this and other so-called end-of-life issues.

The debate is at a relatively early stage. Individuals have gone to the courts in many countries looking to establish a right to an assisted suicide (where someone provides the means to enable the other to take his own life, such as drugs, but does not administer the fatal dose), arguing for the right on the basis of auto- nomy, equality and freedom from inhuman treatment.

A number of judges have expressed support for the recognition of such a right – indeed, it was the decision of a Canadian judge that prompted Irish lawyers to take on Ms Fleming’s case in the first place – but to date no appellate court has followed suit.

In Fleming v Ireland, the seven-judge Supreme Court held that although suicide is no longer a crime in Ireland, this does not mean there is a constitutional right to take one’s own life or to determine the time of one’s death. It also found that the principle of equal treatment did not confer on Ms Fleming, as a disabled person, the right to be helped in taking her own life.

The judges were at pains to point out how conscious they were of Ms Fleming’s acute suffering, but felt that “it is impossible to craft a solution specific to the needs of a plaintiff such as Ms Fleming without jeopardising an essential fabric of the legal system – namely respect for human life – and compromising these protections for others”.

This echoed the earlier ruling in the High Court, which found it could not rule in Ms Fleming’s favour because it could open a “Pandora’s box” leading to the involuntary deaths of vulnerable others.

Ms Fleming could have taken an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but other decisions of the Strasbourg court are not supportive; it has tended to leave the decision up to individual states.


Political issue

While the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, it stressed that nothing in the judgment should be taken as necessarily implying that it would not be open to the State, if the Oireachtas was satisfied it could find appropriate safeguards, to deal with a case such as that of Ms Fleming.

With that, the ball has been batted back to the politicians.

In the Dáil last month, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore – who yesterday paid tribute to Ms Fleming and praised her “brave and courageous campaign” – said the aim should be to deal with the issue in a non- partisan way. “There is no si- mple answer,” he said. “When we come to look at the matter in terms of legislation it will not be a simple, straightforward issue. There is a range of ethical, legal and other issues associated with this topic.”

However, he added: “The issue requires to be dealt with legislatively.”

Asked if Ms Fleming’s death marked the end of their long campaign, her partner and longtime carer Tom Curran was adamant.

“There are lots of other people in situations similar to Marie’s . . . She put so much into it and she wanted it to continue, so I’ll do my best to keep it going.”

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