Private Members Bill
Thursday October 1, 2020
Dying with Dignity Bill
Check against Delivery
I thank Deputy Gino Kenny for bringing forward this piece of legislation.
I acknowledge Deputy Kenny’s legislation reflects a sincere and humanitarian objective to minimise human suffering and distress at the end of life.
We all want to see that. We all know someone who has died in pain. We wouldn’t wish it on ourselves or others.
No matter what way we look at it, assisting someone to die is a very complex issue which gives rise to medical, ethical and moral issues, as well as criminal justice and constitutional issues.
But consideration also needs to be given to the vital public interest in protecting persons who are nearing the end of their lives and who might be vulnerable and at risk of abuse.
In legislating for the complex issue, Ireland would become one of only a small number of countries in the world to legislate for assisted dying.
In my speech today I will deal with:
The existing law
The changes proposed in this bill
The issue of safeguards
The merits of detailed consideration by a special Oireachtas Committee and the need for a wider public debate
It is currently an offence, under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993, to assist another person in taking his or her life. Prosecution of the offence can result in a term of imprisonment of up to 14 years.
The constitutionality of the legislation was upheld by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the Marie Fleming case on 29 April 2013.
The Court held that there is no constitutional right to commit suicide or to arrange for the ending of one’s life at a time of one’s choosing. The Court also found that the prohibition on assisted suicide was not discriminatory and was not contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Courts have said that while it is open to the Oireachtas to legislate in this area, it would be a matter for the Courts to consider if whatever the Oireachtas may propose, if it proposes change at all, is constitutionally permissible.
The Private Members Bill as proposed would decriminalise, subject to certain conditions and safeguards, assisting the death of a terminally ill person.
The Bill does provide a number of safeguards, including that the process is medically led and that the person must be terminally ill.
It is clear that if the House is to legislate in this area that the competing interests of the individual will have to be balanced with the wider public interest in safeguarding people who are nearing the end of their lives and who might be vulnerable and at risk of abuse.
The High Court has made a number of comments in relation to the development and policing of safeguards. The court held:
“But such might well be the unintended effect of such a change, specifically because of the inability of even the most rigorous system of legislative checks and balances to ensure, in particular, that the aged, the disabled, the poor, the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, the impulsive, the financially compromised and the emotionally vulnerable would not disguise their own personal preferences and elect to hasten death so as to avoid a sense of being a burden on family and society. The safeguards built into any liberalised system would, furthermore, be vulnerable to laxity and complacency and might well prove difficult or even impossible to police adequately”.
There is a vital public interest in protecting vulnerable people, which I know all members of this house want to ensure, and it is important that the Oireachtas takes its time to consider the proposed law and the proposed safeguards.
The timed amendment to the motion which has been tabled proposes that we take the necessary time to consider what are complex issues.
It would mean that the Bill be read a second time in 12 months’ time and that a special Joint Oireachtas Committee would be established to consider this matter in detail.
Among the issues the special committee would be asked to consider – although it would not be confined to these issues - would be:
- the medical, ethical and moral issues, as well as criminal justice and constitutional issues which arise
- the issues identified by the High Court in relation to developing and policing safeguards, which are needed to ensure that a qualifying person is not subjected to any pressure by any third parties.
- how unintended consequences that create any adverse impact on vulnerable persons could be avoided;
- the safeguards found in the regulatory regimes prevailing in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and certain US states such as Washington and Oregon which have legislated in this area;
- what role or what legal rights a family member should have in the process and what role the legal profession or those with a function under law in supporting decision-making or making decisions on a person’s behalf should have in relation to the process;
- any issues of a Constitutional nature that might arise;
The Oireachtas Justice and Equality Committee examined assisted dying in the last Dáil and, while it did not come to a conclusion on whether legislative change is required, it did raise a number of questions which need to be answered if change is to be considered.
I hope that the new, special Oireachtas Committee will take up these questions.
The new committee would report back to this house within 12 months with recommendations.
This subject of assisted dying is complex and cannot be rushed.
A special Oireachtas committee is best placed to ensure that there is a full consideration of the issues which arise in this Bill and that is why I am asking Deputies to support the counter motion I am proposing.
The counter motion will also give all of us in here, as well as the general public, the time to consider the fundamental questions and detail of what is being proposed.
On this Bill specifically, there are a number of legal and technical issues which require much greater consideration.
These include the implications this law would have for other countries who could regard such assistance as on offence notwithstanding that it takes place outside of their territory
And while allows for conscientious objection, many doctors would equally have an objection to an imposed duty to transfer and enable the suicide of their patient. That section, if enacted, would be likely the subject of legal challenge.
The question being asked of the House in this Bill could not be of more fundamental importance.
It is asking us to consider whether we should legislate to allow some of our citizens who have a terminal illness choose to end their life.
The past decade has seen this country make a series significant social changes in a relatively short space of time.
We do not need to recount the old arguments today; but on every occasion, each of us took positions which were sincerely held and honestly argued.
Yet the decisions we took, from the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill to the referendums to usher in marriage equality and to repeal the Eighth Amendment, followed years of debate.
Once again, debate around a profound social issue cannot be confined to the chambers and committee rooms of the Oireachtas.
Deputy Kenny’s Bill, and the Government’s counter motion establishing an Oireachtas Committee, will hopefully lead to a wider public debate on the merits, consequences and implications of assisted dying.
One more, each side of the debate must try to respect the opposite point of view.
Those who will argue for assisted dying must respect people who feel that it devalues other lives, such as those of our citizens who have life limiting conditions.
Opposition to assisted dying must also acknowledge that advocates for change are motivated by compassion and care for their fellow citizens.
As Michael Nugent told the Oireachtas Justice and Equality Committee of his late wife Anne, who had medication available to her which would have ender her life:
“Anne died naturally, as do most people who make these preparations. It is not about the act of dying, it is about the peace of mind one has while one is still alive of knowing one can avoid unnecessary suffering if one has to.”
There are deeply held views – and worries – on both sides.
As we open this debate today, I ask that this mutual respect is maintained - here in the Oireachtas and across the country generally.