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October 14, 2023

Report from Ireland

On Tuesday 10 October, Exit Directors Tom Curran and Philip Nitschke were invited to speak to the Joint Committee on Assisted Dying at the Irish Parliament (the Oireachtas).

While Tom’s session went ahead, Philip’s session was rescheduled due to it being budget day. (Philip will now present on 29 November).

In reality, budget day had been reported back in June 2023, so it remains unclear why a Committee would schedule hearings on this day only to cancel them a few days before (and once Philip was already in the country).

Be that as it may, Tom was one of four witnesses on the day. The others were:

  • Elma Walsh – whose son died of cancer at home with palliative care, aged 16
  • John Wall – a friend of Vicky Phelan’s but who himself has prostate cancer
  • Garret Ahern – whose Belgian wife, Vicky Janssens, got an assisted death in Belgium

From the start you could see the session was going to be hard-going.

Not so much for the heart-felt personal stories of the witnesses but for the rather elementary level of the debate and questioning.

Ireland is seemingly still in its infancy in discussing a good death (euthanasia).

This despite it being 10 years since Tom’s partner, Marie Fleming, took her case of discrimination to Ireland’s High Court and Constitutional Court.

Philip & Tom, Oireachtas, Dublin 10 October 2023

This is why the session was disappointing.

The first witness was the mother of a 16 year old who died of cancer. To those unfamiliar with the case, it seems that once Donal got terminal cancer, he became a passionate advocate against suicide.

His mother, therefore, spent her time discussing the ills of suicide and the fact that Donal had the best death at home and that legalising assisted dying would amount to nothing more than a slippery slope as it would undo all the good in Donal’s anti-suicide work.

Go figure that one.

Of interest is the fact that even if Ireland had a law, almost all laws exclude the under 18s. Even if Donal had wanted choice at the end, he would never have qualified. Too young by two years.

The second witness was John Wall who took an extraordinarily hardline position.

Terminally ill with < 6 months to live was the only criteria he would countenance.

Speaking with John afterwards about his stance, he seemed to have little understanding (and certainly no answer) for anyone who falls outside of this tiny exclusive club of the most seriously terminally ill: people with neurological conditions and/ or unbearable suffering like Marie Fleming.

Tom Curran spoke of course about Marie and he spoke also about the Swiss model as the only legal regime that could help people like Marie.

Tom told the story of how Marie’s neurologist always said that it was impossible to know how long Marie had to go: it could be 2 months, 2 years or 20 years he had always said.

Tom asked the committee to name any future bill after Marie, and for it to be known as ‘Marie’s Law’. He will now be starting a new campaign asking ‘Would Marie have qualified?’

The answer thus far in the process is clearly NO.

The final witness of the day was Garret Ahern whose wife had had to organise her own assisted death in Belgium in April this year.

After a failed suicide attempt in Ireland in February, and next to no support from Garret in terms of taking things into her own hands and dying in Ireland, Vicky realised her only choice was to go ‘home’ to Belgium to die.

Garret accompanied Vicky but spoke of how he was not involved in ‘helping’ her. Garret’s point was that the Irish should be able to avoid the ‘stress and trauma’ that comes with travelling to Belgium to get help to die.

Philip & Tom with other witnesses & Gino Kenny (2nd from right)

Gino is a Teachta Dála (TD) for People before Profit in the Oireachtas

It was a strange day and a rather odd selection of witnesses.

Despite this, People before Profit’s Gino Kenny, commented that it was one of the better days of the hearings: other days he explained had been intensely hostile to the concept of a bill on assisted dying.

Despite Ireland moving forward on other social issues (eg. gay marriage and abortion), it is clear that any law that is introduced in this country about end of life choices will be the most conservative and narrow imaginable.

Despite all the rhetoric about learning from the mistakes in other jurisdictions, the Irish are setting out to repeat those exact same mistakes.

This will amount to a lost opportunity.

Adopting a narrow medical model is not the way to go, it never was.

New thinking is needed, instead of blind adherence to the old adage of ‘doctor knows best’.

It beggars belief that the Committee has not yet invited anyone from the world’s largest right to die organisation, the NVVE in the Netherlands, to present to the Committee.

The biggest source of legislative experience in end of life is at Ireland’s doorstep.

Come on Gino, Exit calls on you to use your position on this Committee to open the window and let the sun shine in … just a bit!

It’s never too late!