We are ready to have this conversation as a country
Speech by Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly on the Dying with Dignity Bill at Second Stage , 1st October 2020
As Leader of the Labour Party and our spokesperson on Health, I want to add mine and my Party’s support to this very important piece of legislation. I want to thank Deputy Gino Kenny for bringing forward this Bill, and for former Minister John Halligan for all of his work on it.
It is vital that this issue is handled sensitively as end of life care is an extremely emotive topic for so many. No matter what way colleagues land on this issue this evening, it is vital that that we discuss this issue in a measured way.
We have seen massive societal change in this country over the last ten years – we have lived through a tough recession, young people have left and come back – we have had tough conversations about abortion and equal marriage and come through the other side. Irish people are caring by our nature and we think about these issues deeply.
Over the last six months in particular, many people have questioned their own mortality, and conversations have been had around kitchen tables when it comes to end of life care.
When a loved one becomes sick with a serious illness and the end of their life is nearing, we want to do everything we can to stop their pain and suffering. Improving end of life care and providing outlets for dying with dignity are imperative.
This issue should not be kicked down the road any longer, I believe we are ready to have this conversation as a country. I’ve been struck by many of the cases and advocates for dying with dignity that have been put forward in the last few weeks. It has certainly opened my eyes to the extent of how much this provision is needed.
Like so many issues in Irish society, brave Irish women are at the fore of the vanguard for change when it comes to dying with dignity.
I want to speak firstly of Marie Fleming and her partner Tom Curran.
We all know Marie’s story – Marie while she was in the final stages of Multiple Sclerosis took a landmark legal case to the Supreme Court to challenge the State’s legal ban on assisted suicide. We all know she lost that battle at the time but when giving his judgement on her case, the Chief Justice said there was nothing in the judgment to prevent the State from introducing legislative measures with the appropriate safeguards to deal with a case such as Marie’s.
Marie’s campaign on issues around the right to die was both brave and courageous.
And while pursuing her campaign – at both political and legal levels – was always going to be a challenge, her deeply-held conviction meant it was one she was never going to back away from.
Marie successfully highlighted the complex issues that affect people who find themselves in a situation like hers, and the fact that her case has kick-started a national debate on these matters will be her lasting legacy.
I’ve said many times in this House and indeed outside of it that Vicky Phelan is one of the bravest women I know – she is an inspiration to so many – and I am really reassured by her stance on this issue. I spoke to Vicky earlier and she wanted me to read this into the Dáil record
“You have been asked to debate a very important Bill this evening – the Dying with Dignity Bill. I understand that there will be very many of you who may not agree with what this Bill proposes – assisted dying. However, all that I am asking of you is to park your own views on the issue for a moment and consider this:
Imagine that you are dying from an incurable cancer.
You are still relatively young with young children.
You do not want to die yet you know that, barring a miracle, this is not going to happen.
You do not know how long you have left yet all that you can think about is dying and leaving your young children behind.
You know that people suffering from the same cancer, who have died before you, endured a lot of pain in their final weeks.
Indeed, you have sat with some of these patients in their final weeks and watched them and their loved ones suffer unnecessarily while they waited for the last breath.
You will never forget the sound of the death rattle, a sound that you know is facing you when your time comes and which haunts you when you imagine your young children having to witness this.
Now imagine that there is another way.
Imagine that you can choose to control the circumstances of your inevitable death.
Imagine that, by virtue of this Bill, that you are allowed to die, gently, at home, surrounded by your family and friends when your time is nearing its end.
I do not have to imagine.
THIS is what this Dying with Dignity Bill would do for me and my family.
I do not want to die.
I am NOT choosing between living and dying.
My cancer is incurable.
The option of living will no longer be available to me in the not too distant future.
I just want to be allowed to have the choice to control the circumstances of my death much as I have made decisions about my own life.
Please, I ask all of you who have a free vote on this issue:
Do not vote for the amendment proposed by Cabinet and send the Bill to a Special Committee to be scrutinised for a further 12 months.
Vote for this Bill to go through to the Second Stage and allow for pre-legislative scrutiny to take place NOW, not in 12 months time
Do not kick this issue down the road for another 12 months.
Voting FOR this Bill would bring a huge amount of comfort and clarity to people, like me, who know they are going to die, and die with a certain amount of suffering and pain.
Allow people to make the choice for themselves.”
We all know that this is not a black and white issue. We need to ensure that those who are vulnerable are protected. People who are vulnerable should not be made feel like their lives are lessened in value because of proposals in this Bill and no one should feel like they are being taken advantage of. We in the Labour Party value people’s dignity above all else and want to ensure that people have the best quality of life that they can. We need to invest more in palliative care and ensure that people are as comfortable as they can be at the end of a difficult road.
There are some legal issues that I and my Party have with this Bill, but I know that Deputy Kenny is willing to be constructive and work with others to ensure that this Bill is the best it can possibly be.
There is perhaps an unintentional gap in the Bill. Section 2 of the 1993 Suicide Act prohibits aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another person. This Bill is concerned with removing the ban on ‘aiding and abetting’, i.e., assisting a suicide. But section 12 of the Bill seems to override section 2 of the 1993 Act in its entirety. I don’t think it was intended to legalise counselling or procuring, i.e., inciting or encouraging someone to commit suicide. Incidentally, the Bill is silent about any form of counselling, whether directive or non-directive.
There is another, more obvious, flaw. Section 12 of the Bill states that nothing in the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993 makes unlawful the provision of assistance in accordance with this Bill. But this Bill is in fact concerned with more than just providing assistance, by providing life-ending ‘substances’ for self-administration. It authorises, in certain circumstances, the direct administration of such substances by the attending physician. Such a practitioner would need to be exempted not just from the offence of aiding and abetting under the Suicide Act but also from the common law offence of murder.
Supporting this Bill is a brave stance to take, and I implore anyone on the Government benches who still remains undecided to read some of the media coverage that is out there and the stories that people young and old have about their desire to die with dignity. This legislation isn’t perfect but it is a start. The nation has started to have a conversation on this and the Government cannot and should not delay having a mature conversation any further.