A 58-year-old woman appeared last week before High Court to petition for the right to be lawfully assisted in ending her own life. Marie Fleming, who suffers from terminal multiple sclerosis, challenged the absolute ban on assisted suicide as set out in Section 2(2) of the Criminal Law Suicide Act 1993. Brian Murray SC, for Ms Fleming, argued that the current position in Irish law breaches the right of terminally ill people of full mental capacity to end their lives where they are unable to do so without assistance. It was also argued that the absolute ban in Section 2(2) amounts to unequal treatment of disabled persons. Counsel for the plaintiff countered the State’s “slippery slope to euthanasia” justification by suggesting the creation of strict safeguards and guidelines to govern cases of assisted suicide.
Although there is no explicit right to die under the Constitution, Ms Fleming argued that such right flows from the indisputable rights to autonomy, dignity and privacy. These rights were recognised by the Supreme Court in a decision in 1996 allowing nutrition to be withdrawn from a woman in a near-permanent vegetative state. Mr Murray relied on aspects of the aforementioned decision in proceedings today. Ms Fleming described how palliative care is “not acceptable” to her, and how her desire is to be assisted in having a “peaceful, dignified death”.
The four legal issues to be determined were set out by Mr Murray. The first is whether Ms Fleming’s rights to life, dignity, personal and bodily autonomy and privacy under the Constitution and/or the European Convention are impaired by Section 2(2). If the court decides there is such impairment, it must then look to whether the impairment is justified in the common good. The third issue relates to whether the justified impairment has been brought about in a constitutional and proportionate manner. The final issue questions whether the absolute ban on assisted suicide amounts to discrimination against Ms Fleming as a disabled person.
The right of a terminally ill person to legally be assisted in taking their own life has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights, the Canadian Supreme Court and the House of Lords in the UK.
This piece was written by Elizabeth Sharkey, legal intern at Fagan Bergin Solicitors.