Paul Hopkins: Our right to die, with our dignity intact

It is quite understandable that the Catholic Church, given its fundamental credence, is against abortion, the taking of a (potential) life as they see it. Also, too, they have issues with the upcoming landmark legislation to deal with infertility and domestic surrogacy in Ireland. The legislation deals with domestic 'altruistic' surrogacy, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and embryo screening procedures. Sadly, up to 2,000 children in Ireland, born through surrogacy, are still awaiting a formal retrospective recognition of their parentage in Ireland.

So to euthanasia, the right to have a say in your own dying. Irish bishops have written an open letter rejecting proposals to introduce legislation on assisted dying. as the "deliberate taking of human life undermines a fundamental principle of civilised society".

The letter comes after the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Assisted Dying have recommended the Government introduce legislation allowing for assisted dying under "restricted" circumstances.

The committee's final report, earlier this year, recommended that only a person diagnosed with a condition that is incurable and irreversible, advanced, progressive and will cause death, is expected to cause death within six months, or causes suffering to a person that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person finds tolerable, is eligible to be assessed.

The bishops have said the State would "contribute to undermining the confidence of people who are terminally ill and want to live life fully as possible until death naturally comes" by introducing the proposed legislation. They also argue that people with intellectual disabilities would be "particularly vulnerable" and the legislation would do "untold damage" to the integrity of the Irish healthcare system.

It read: "Once life is taken away, autonomy is also taken away. The church does not and never has insisted on the use of extraordinary means to prolong life. Nor is there any moral obligation on a sick person to accept treatment which they feel is unduly burdensome. A decision to end life prematurely, however, cuts off any prospect of growth or healing and represents a failure of hope."

As far back as 2011, the European Court of Human Rights judged that "voluntary assisted dying should be legalised as a choice alongside other options ... be it palliative care or hospice work".

Last autumn, the Oireachtas committee heard that 12 people from Ireland had availed since 2003 of assisted dying with the Swiss clinic Dignitas. Dignitas has members from around 100 countries and assists in about 200 to 250 'suicides' annually. More women than men seek the service but, controversially, according to reports, less than 50 per cent are terminally ill at the time.

It seems we're caught between the rock and the hard place. Picture a society in which patients are routinely euthanised — whether they want their lives to end or not — if their suffering cannot be alleviated without dulling their consciousness, eradicating their independence, or dismissing their dignity. Defenders of such might argue that the duty to prevent suffering makes the policy persuasive. A reasoned response would be that, while suffering and loss of independence are undesirable, only the person enduring such should decide if it is unbearable. Provided, the patient is competent to decide – and that, arguably, might prove legally dicey.

When my father died, my mother knew there was no going back. She didn’t want to go on. She was in stage four of an incurable cancer. Being of sound mind, she told the doctor she didn’t want to take any more medicine.

“I’ve had a good life,” she quietly told me.

So, one blue-skied day in September of the miillennium year, with my siblings and I by her side, she slipped into a coma, the loving hospice nurse cradling my mother’s shrunken head in her lap. A few days later she died, peacefully and relatively pain-free. At 82 years, with an incurable disease, she chose her own time of going along with that last vestige of humankind, her dignity.

Under Irish law, adults have the right to refuse medical treatment, even if such is required to save their life, as long as they have ‘sufficient capacity’, to 'understand' the making of such a decision.

Was my mother's going not a passive euthanasia of sorts, practised already in our wonderfully caring hospices?

In the 36 years since renowned GP Paddy Leahy first broached the subject, only now are we legally seeking to rectify the matter.

The bishops are wrong. I strongly believe that, ethically, we should have the right to control our own bodies and choose when and how we die.

With our dignity unsullied ...