It is just over a month since People before Profit TD Gino Kenny launched and sponsored the Dying with Dignity Bill, continuing the efforts of former TD John Halligan to see assisted suicide legalised in Ireland.
The bill is entitled ‘An Act to make provision for assistance in achieving a dignified and peaceful end of life to qualifying persons and related matters’.
Despite the recent re-introduction the bill has progressed rapidly and is set to enter the committee stage, with TDs voting against sending it to a special joint Oireachtas committee, before voting in favour of the bill itself by 81-71 last week.
With such a rush to embrace the bill, it would appear as though it already had a majority consensus from all of the relevant quarters. However, it seems to be more so the case that the voices of opposition are being brushed past.
An example of this was to be seen in the anger that erupted in the Dáil earlier this month as the debate on assisted suicide excluded almost all of the voices opposed to the suggested measure, with Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín tweeting: “The slots for speaking were full before the bill started. This is unprecedented. It is shocking to see a debate of such importance prevent opposing views.”
The support the bill has garnered is challenged by the criticism it has earned, even if that criticism has been largely going unseen”
As the session in question drew to a close, Mr Tóibín appealed for more time, saying: “I welcome that all the speakers so far have said we need a proper discussion about this very serious issue. It would be a shame to go through the second stage debate without anybody with an opposing view on the bill getting a chance to speak, and with all the views exactly the same.”
Mr Tóibín was not alone in condemning the lack of representation for opposition views, with Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath referring to the debate as “shambolic”.
Of the 70-minute debate, a total of four minutes were devoted to those opposed to the bill, with Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick using those minutes to argue against it.
The movement behind the bill gained significant and early support as prominent campaigners for the cause such as Vicky Phelan, Tom Curran and Gail O’Rorke lent their weight to Mr Kenny’s initiative. However, the support the bill has garnered is challenged by the criticism it has earned, even if that criticism has been largely going unseen.
In a recent letter to a number of media outlets, a group of consultant doctors said that they are “gravely concerned” by the possibility of euthanasia in Ireland.
The letter saw 17 members of the Irish Palliative Medicine Consultants’ Association (IPMCA) call on TDs to oppose the bill as it moved through the various stages, arguing that the law in Ireland requires no change.
They said: “Based on our collective experience over many decades of providing specialist care to thousands of individuals in Ireland and their families each year, we have closely observed the experiences of people who have lived and are living with serious illness.
“We worry about the impact on people who already struggle to have their voices heard in our society – older adults, the disabled, those with mental illness and others.
“We fear the most vulnerable are those who may be made to feel a burden to their families and come under pressure to end their lives prematurely.”
As support for the bill has grown among both politicians and public, doctors have increasingly come to the fore as a bulwark of opposition to the introduction of assisted suicide in Ireland.
Speaking on Newstalk’s Lunchtime Live programme last week, consultant geriatrician at Galway University Hospital Dr Shaun O’Keefe stated that “the majority” of Irish physicians were opposed to the bill.
Voicing an opinion that has circulated widely on social media, Dr O’Keefe said: “We are accustomed to seeing suicide as a scourge in our society…something that needs to be prevented; something that causes enormous hurt.
“So, there is just a massive dissonance between that and having physician assisted suicide as something socially sanctioned where doctors would be required to offer it as a service.”
Dr O’Keefe also drew attention to the broad manner in which the bill had been drafted – a criticism that has been levelled often at the Dying with Dignity Bill since its reintroduction.
The description of terminal illness as being incurable and progressive “which cannot be reversed by treatment”, coupled with the provision that the person is “likely to die as a result of that illness or complications relating thereto” leaves the door to assisted suicide wide open to sufferers of a wide variety of illnesses, critics say.
If Ireland passed the bill, it would become one of only a handful of countries to make provision for assisted suicide”
The worry is that “once assisted suicide is accepted in principle, it becomes very difficult to draw a line. Many countries, which began by legalising assisted suicide on a very limited basis, have moved on to widen significantly the scope of that legislation,” as the Irish Bishops’ Conference recently stated.
If Ireland passed the bill, it would become one of only a handful of countries to make provision for assisted suicide, standing alongside the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US states of Washington and Oregon.
When the situation in each of these countries is examined, the fears of doctors and bishops opposed to the bill take on a stark reality, with figures showing year-on-year increases in assisted suicide.
The Netherlands introduced assisted suicide in 2002, with the figures for 2006 coming in at 1,923 deaths by euthanasia. By 2017, the figure had soared to 6,585 euthanasia cases. Similarly, in Switzerland, the number of people who died by assisted suicide rose from 43 in 1998 to more than 1,000 in 2015.
With Ireland surpassing even the wildest estimates for abortion last year, there’s little reason to believe the same won’t be true of assisted suicide.