Irish Minister calls for a public forum on assisted suicide and euthanasia bill

Irish Minister calls for a public forum on assisted suicide and euthanasia bill 

The Christmas and New Year holidays are an interesting time for politics and politicians. Usually newspaper columns and electronic media are taken over by holiday events and other 'good news' stories. Even when venturing into politics, journalists are most often publishing reflective 'the year that was' stories rounded out with party leaders good wishes to all.

It is also a really good time for political parties to release those really uncomfortable and even embarrassing 'mea culpas' on poor performances, errors in judgement, or even minor scandals in the hope that the story is quickly lost with a minimum of embarrassment or discomfort.

It can also be a good time for those with agendas for social change to find rare extra 'air-time' to push their cause.

Exit International's European boss, Tom Curran did just that this week. To be fair, he had every right to do so as TD John Halligan's 'Dying with Dignity' Bill was introduced only days after the second anniversary of the death of his wife, Marie Fleming. Fleming, as readers will no doubt recall, took a case in the Irish Courts arguing for, amongst other things, a right for Curran to accompany her to Switzerland to secure her own suicide without the risk of charges being raised against him.

And so, Curran's is a personal plea with definite currency and no-one should move to deny him his right to pursue a cause. TD John Halligan, likewise, will be pushing for a bill in which he has invested time and effort. But why would a Government Minister, TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, want to enter the fray when his leader, the Prime Minister, Enda Kenny has been pouring cold water on the debate ever since Halligan flagged it a year or so ago? Why would he risk euthanasia and assisted suicide becoming an election issue when it is clearly divisive, not supported by his leader and will take valuable 'air-time' away from the substantive issues as Ireland draws closer to the election in April 2016 at the latest?

Ó Ríordáin provides no answers in an article in the Irish Examiner. Nor does he actually say if he supports the bill or not; instead arguing what we could call a 'middle ground' approach - that of public forums followed by a possible referendum.

Why public forums? "I think that would take the party politics out of it. We would have a situation then where we could hopefully look at the rights and wrongs of it," Ó Ríordáin told The Examiner. What party politics? The bill is a private members' bill implying a conscience vote. As far as the writer is aware, no Irish political party has bound its parliamentary members to a vote either way.

Politics aside, there is a question being batted back and forth over whether or not the Irish Constitution forbids euthanasia and assisted suicide and whether or not, therefore, a constitutional amendment would be required to provide access. If it is a constitutional matter, the argument goes, then a bill will not do the job.

Curran told the press that, "It doesn't need to be put to the people. As was stated in the High Court, it doesn't need a referendum, there is no constitutional ban, so the constitution doesn't have to be changed. So all it needs is legislation."

Prime Minister Kenny says that his legal advice is that it is a matter for the constitution and, therefore, a referendum. He has said that his government is not interested in pursuing that approach. Tom Curran and others say that the issue is a matter for the parliament, suggesting that Kenny is using the Constitution as a shield to hide behind.

The reality seems to fall between these two stools. In the most robust and diligent 'forum' in Ireland, the Supreme and High Courts in the Fleming case made firm decisions in favour of the status quo. On appeal, the Supreme Court made some interesting observations in respect to the Constitution and the ability and primacy of the parliament.

In short, the Justices observed the comment that, 'no person has a right to have his or her life terminated' was a persuasive analysis of a right to life under the Constitution. However, the same Justices also observed that Acts of Parliament (the Oireachtas) have a 'Presumption of Constitutionality', meaning that a bill passed in both chambers and proclaimed as law is indeed lawful unless and until such time as a successful appeal is heard by the courts.

Really, this is all little more than shadow boxing. Halligan, Curran and Ó Ríordáin know full well that there is not sufficient time for this bill to go anywhere in the current parliament. It would seem, therefore that theirs is an attempt to have the issue register with voters in the hope of gaining some momentum into the next parliament.

Again in The Examiner we see Halligan's false claim that his bill is 'clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical suffering' repeated from earlier articles. Does no one bother to read the bill? As we observed earlier, the bill does not mention pain and suffering at all and is not only for people in advanced stages of terminal illness, but for anyone with a terminal prognosis - even if they may have many years of good or relatively good health ahead of them.

Tom Curran's backing of this bill is problematic. Yes, he surely supports Halligan's bill in memory of his late wife. Earlier reports sad that he assisted Halligan in the drafting process along with others. But Curran also works for Exit International who operate under different philosophical and practical premises in regards to both suicide and euthanasia.

Recently, Curran's boss, Philip Nitschke was referred to at as saying that, 'he believed any legislative changes to permit voluntary euthanasia should include everybody and not just the terminally ill.' A larger cohort than the bill Curran supports, made indefinitely larger by the most recent inclusion of suicide for those, "who want to die for social reasons", as Nitschke puts it.

Curran is further compromised in his role at Exit because of their business model which involves providing advice on suicide methods, where to access the means, the provision of goods that can be used in suicide and on-line chat forums; all of this in an environment that is decidedly outside the law in most countries.

Curran may or may not subscribe to Nitschke's full agenda. But here's the trouble; even though most sensible people will, at the very least, recoil at Nitschke's suggestions; they are, in fact, logical. When Marie Fleming's lawyers argued for an exception to the prohibition on assisting in suicide they did so for what they defined as a 'particular cohort'. The justices wisely asked: "what cohort?" thereby observing the reality that once the prohibition on killing is breached in supposedly limited cases, that later arguments to expand the remit (or even simply the practice) will be compelling.