Law is 'adverse to all suicide', court told
The Irish courts “can never sanction any step to terminate a life” even after legislation which decriminalised suicide, Michael Cush SC, for the State, told the Supreme Court.
Asked by Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman if the consequence of that position meant someone in the position of terminally ill Marie Fleming may die “an extremely distressing death”, Mr Cush agreed that was the case.
That was not to say a choice could not be made in relation to people in her position but that choice was not for the courts, he said. Ms Fleming’s case had generated “huge debate”, he noted.
Mr Cush was making submissions on behalf of the State in the continuing appeal by Ms Fleming against the High Court’s rejection of her challenge to the absolute ban on assisted suicide in section 2.2 of the Criminal Law Suicide Act 1993. Ms Fleming (59), Co Wicklow, is in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. She says she needs to be assisted to fulfil her wish of a dignified death at a time of her choice.
Mr Cush said suicide was a serious social problem with “appalling consequences” for family, friends and community and its decriminalisation in the 1993 Act did not create a right to die by suicide.
Right to refuse treatment
The Supreme Court had ruled in another case there was a right to die naturally and a right to refuse medical treatment but our law went no further than that, he said.
If there was a legal right to die by suicide, there was no constitutional and no general right to do so, he argued. The policy of the law remained “adverse to all suicide” and that was why aiding and abetting a suicide was an offence.
“Suicide is regarded as a real problem,” Mr Cush added.
While the State had sympathy for Ms Fleming, who wants to be assisted in taking her own life, there was no constitutional right to such assistance, he said.
The primary concept in the Constitution was the protection of life and there was no general right to die by suicide.
If there was, what implications would that have, for example, a single parent with a young family, he asked.
It was not open to the courts to identify a class of people who had a right to assisted suicide when that class was not identified by the Constitution itself. There was no narrow right for any particular class of person and, if there were, it would also mean a right to euthanasia because the same reasoning would apply.
People at risk
Even if there was a right to assisted suicide such as Ms Fleming contended for, the State was entitled to justify the ban on the basis of its view that any relaxation of the ban could place vulnerable people at risk.
The ban was intended to apply to all, including those who engaged in suicide pacts, Mr Cush added.
It reflected a policy decision that the State was entitled to make, was designed and calculated to prevent assisted suicides and could not be overturned on the basis of an alleged breach of equality rights. It just so happened the ban affected Ms Fleming, he added.
Shane Murphy SC, also for the State, said the law and Constitution vindicated life and encouraged people “to live”. The ban on assisted suicide did not reflect a paternalistic approach but the State’s “overwhelming” interest in protecting the sanctity of all human life.
The right to life was the pre-eminent personal right in the Constitution and the State had a bona fide interest in assessing social policy and protecting vulnerable people against involuntary death, he said.
The appeal resumes next Tuesday.