Currently, helping another to end his/her own life is illegal in Ireland. This applies to a medical professional, family member, or friend. Hence, for terminally ill people, there are right to die.
I disagree with this situation and I believe we should introduce legislation to change it. I believe such legislation is about empowering choice and supporting an individual’s conscience. I know that if I am so unfortunate that I become terminally ill, I want to be able to choose how and when I die. I believe that if I am physically capable, I would like to do this myself. I believe that if I am not physically capable, I would like a doctor to assist me. This is a personal choice for all of us and we should be permitted, and supported, to act on it.
Firstly, terminology: if a physician prescribes a lethal dose of medicine to a patient and the patient takes it himself/herself, this is assisted suicide; if a physician administers the medicine, this is euthanasia. Some people are comfortable with the former but not the latter. They are okay with a doctor prescribing a lethal dose of a particular regulated medicine to a terminally ill individual, but they are not okay with a doctor administering that dose. These people fear that the involvement of a doctor in the act brings risks that the act will be abused or that choice is less clear.
Internationally, this division is clear in the legislation that permits assisted suicide or euthanasia or both. In the Netherland, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal. In Belgium, the legislation draws no distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide, requiring only that the patient’s physician is present at time of death. Under Oregon’s assisted suicide legislation, a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of medicine but need not be present when this taken.
Clearly, it is important that legislation affording a right to die is carefully designed. The public will want safety checks, physicians will want certainty that they will be free from prosecution, and patients will want clarity about how to apply and about what is needed from them.
To allay these fears, there is a lot we can do. We can structure the law so physicians can opt out. We can structure the law so those under 18 can have a say, with their parents consent. We can structure the law so it only applies to the terminally ill. We can ensure that the law so the right is only available to those who are mentally cogent. We can require that a GP and an independent doctor sign off on a patient’s request. We can require that the coroner’s office signs off the death certificate. We can allow only the doctor or the patient to administer the medicine. We can permit the act to take place in one’s home, under supervision or not.
This all tells us we have numerous options for how to design right-to-die legislation and also tells us we need to have a reasoned conversation about it. This is about giving terminally ill people choice and respect at the end of their lives. We owe it to them to debate this maturely. If elected, I will bring this conversation to the Seanad.