Naturally such a topic as fundamental as our own mortality has lead to much discussion and debate, ranging from Terry Pratchett’s beautiful and moving Richard Dimbleby lecture to Cristina Odone’s and the Center for Policy Studies deeply disrespectful “report”. Whatever people’s position on the subject, there is currently an ongoing and dynamic dialogue in the UK. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case in Ireland.
Ireland’s Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993 (almost identical to the UK’s Suicide Act 1961, it should be noted) states that “A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be guilty of an offence”. However, much as the illegality of suicide before 1993 did not prevent people killing themselves, the existence of this law has not stopped people seeking help in their desperation to end their suffering. Documents released by Dignitas revealed between 1998 and 2009 six people from Ireland undertook the journey to Switzerland to end their lives. One can but speculate on how many others have struggled within a system unable to legally provide them the help they so desire.
The recent Irish Times ‘Sex, Sin and Society’ poll (of which probably the most depressing result was the 55% of respondents who reported “honesty, integrity and transparency” as the most important values they wanted to see in politicians. Poor, naive, optimistic Ireland…) showed that 57% of those surveyed believed it should be legal for a doctor to assist the terminally ill end their lives if they so wished. Maureen Gaffney suggested that, while 9 in 10 respondents identified themselves as Catholic, the results of the poll indicated the Irish people were turning their back on dogma.
Sadly, it seems, there is an element who still thoroughly embrace their dogma, and in doing so refuse to face up to the responsibilities of a relatively mature democracy- the responsibility of allowing others have their say, no matter how distasteful you find it. Specifically I refer to two related pro-life networks, Youth Defence and the Life Institute. These groups, who’s main focus is campaigning against abortion, are also unsurprisingly anti-assisted suicide. Which would be all well and good, if they didn’t go about it in such an obnoxious fashion.
Earlier this year Dr. Philip Nitschke, the founder and director of Exit International (a “strange and objectionable organization”, according to Youth Defence), gave a talk in which he outlined his belief that people have the right to learn how to peacefully and reliably end their own lives. However this was only after the venue the talk was to be held in had to be changed four times, following strident work by the Life Institute. They orchestrated complaints to potential venues and issued a press release stating that “a ‘disturbing and exploitative’ DIY-Euthanasia workshop should not be allowed to take place in a tax-payer funded community centre”. They even went as far as to tell the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern that he was obliged to act as the talk “counsels and assists in the procurement of suicide” and thus was against the law. One wonders how the tykes at Youth Defence and Life Institute get a moments rest, what with all the campaigning they must do against films and televisions shows which ‘council and assist’ the viewing public in how to murder people.
In April of 2009 Professor Len Doyal was due to give a talk at University College Cork entitled “Why Euthanasia should be Legalised”. A forthright title no doubt, which brought a forthright response from approximately 20 protesters, some reportedly from Youth Defence, who shouted down the speaker. The event was not “cancelled” as the Life Institute reported, it had to be abandoned as the professor was unable to deliver his talk over the cries of “Nazi” and the fevered chanting of the rosary. As Prof. Doyal himself lamented in the Guardian “Last Thursday evening in Cork was not tragic for me, but for Ireland.”
Dr Eoin O’Dell has perfectly described this kind of thing as the “Hecklers’ Veto”, where if you just shout loud enough for long enough you can prevent the expression of any information you are opposed to. This shuts down any chance of a dialogue, and makes people less likely to talk in the first place.
I wonder what these people really fear? It is almost as if uttering the very phrase “assisted suicide” or “euthanasia” will lead to hordes of people immediately topping themselves at the first sign of a sniffle, or doctors pumping their patients with lethal doses of morphine whenever they want to pop down the pub a bit early one evening. The joy of living in a somewhat civilised society, a society that happily allows you to share your anti-abortion message on it’s streets, is that you have to share those self-same streets with anyone else who has a message they want to spread, as long as they are doing people no harm. And no matter how offended you may be, nor how much of a bruising your delusional sense of morality might be taking, discussing assisted suicide is doing no one any harm.
There are people in Ireland, more than half the population if the Irish Times poll is to be believed, who think people should have a right to decide what to do with their lives, including when they want to end it. There is clearly a discussion that needs to be had about the rights, the wrongs, the difficulties and possibilities of allowing people to choose to die. And no antiquated Catholic hang-ups, for I find it difficult to believe it could be anything else, should prevent that conversation from happening.