Ian O'Doherty: 'Euthanasia will be next big cultural battleground – and it's time we faced that uncomfortable reality'

It’s exceedingly rare for a private citizen to ‘do the State some service’.

That phrase tends to be associated with politicians paying tribute to other politicians (or, in Charles Haughey’s case, paying tribute to himself), but there can be no doubt that Vicky Phelan has indeed done her State some service.

Her honourable refusal to take a cheque and sign a gagging order exposed the State CervicalCheck scandal, which led to scores of other cases being discovered and forced an apology from the Taoiseach in the Dáil.

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That, in itself, is more than any of us will ever achieve in our lifetime but following her comments in a newspaper interview on Sunday, she may well have performed yet another service for her country.

Discussing her life expectancy, and how her hopes for another five years may be in vain, she opened up about her views on euthanasia. As the reluctant campaigner put it: “I would be pro-euthanasia, definitely. I would hate to be in a position where I was in a lot of pain, or lingering, as can happen a lot, that people are waiting four or five days for somebody to die. It’s terrible for the patient. It’s terrible for the family having to sit and watch their loved one dying in pain. It’s not a nice sight to see people when they are dying.”

Irish society has come a long way in the last decade. The will of the people was overwhelming in their vote supporting both gay marriage and repealing the Eighth Amendment, yet when it comes to the one issue which will affect us all – the manner of our death – the topic of euthanasia remains one of the last great taboos in polite society.

For many Irish people, the issue of euthanasia was really brought home in 2013 when MS sufferer Marie Fleming took an unsuccessful Supreme Court action to allow her to die in a manner of her own choosing, without worrying if her partner, Tom Curran, would face subsequent prosecution for assisting her.

Similarly, Dublin woman Gail O’Rorke was prosecuted for, although ultimately found not guilty, of helping a friend die.

As the law stands, not only is it illegal to assist someone dying in this jurisdiction, even travelling with someone to somewhere such as the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland is also a criminal offence.

That is the dilemma which Ms Phelan will eventually face, and it’s one which is confronted by many Irish citizens on a daily basis.

When she said that “if you tell family members and you bring them with you, are they going to be prosecuted when they come back to Ireland for assisting you?”, she was acknowledging that the State has a history of impeding and prosecuting those who help a loved one travel to end their suffering.

Whether we like it or not, euthanasia is going to be the next cultural battleground in this country. We have an ageing population and modern medicine can now keep people alive for far longer than ever before.

But being kept alive isn’t the same as living and there is something almost monstrously cruel about forcing someone whose body has become their greatest enemy to endure a final few months or even years of undignified agony and fear.

Contrary to traditional teachings, there is no dignity in suffering, and anyone who has ever watched a loved one slowly shrivel as their body is ravaged by disease and racked with pain will be forgiven for feeling scorn towards those who say there is.

That is not to underplay the incredible work done in Irish hospices – the often forgotten arm of the health service. Staff in these establishments do genuinely humbling work for a pittance. As someone who has spent time in three different hospices with loved ones over the last few years, it was impossible not to be struck by the professionalism and, most importantly, the kindness of the staff.

They are truly inspirational people who are owed a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

John Halligan has been fighting a lonely battle in his efforts to get appropriate legislation framed on the issue.

His Private Members Bill fell with the last Dáil in 2016, but he remains hopeful that it will be heard in the next Dáil. It will be interesting to see how much progress he makes on the issue because politicians tend to run a mile from such a thorny topic – a luxury denied to those who are in pain today.

Currently, euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal in six countries and six states in America. Last month, politicians in New Zealand voted to adopt the End Of Life Choice Bill, which will now go to a referendum in 2020, to be held at the same time as their general election. The tide is turning.

There are two main arguments against euthanasia: one is religious and the other practical. The religious argument is easy to dismiss if you are not actually religious; after all, everyone must choose their own path and nobody is suggesting that loosening the euthanasia laws will make it mandatory.

But many of the most vociferous anti-euthanasia campaigners are disabled people worried that they will come under pressure to die. That may not be the case, but it would be wrong for pro-euthanasia advocates to simply dismiss their fears.

It is also true that there have been numerous cases in recent years which have stretched the concept to near-breaking point. The choice of deaf Belgian twins, Eddie and Marc Verbessem (45), to be euthanised when they started to go blind raised many uncomfortable questions, particularly as their family pleaded with them to change their minds.

Numerous prisoners serving life sentences with no possibility of parole in Belgium, and indeed Australia, have petitioned the courts to be euthanised on the grounds that serving the rest of their days behind bars is a form of ‘unendurable torture’.

None of those cases has been successful so far but we should all be worried about ushering in the death penalty by any other name.

Similarly, the Dutch model, which takes severe depression into account, is another area of concern for even the most ardent right-to-die supporters.

But nobody should expect such a profound issue to be easy and, not for the first time in this country, it seems the people are ahead of the politicians.

The most recent Amarach poll saw 63pc of the population in favour of euthanasia – remarkably close to the 64.5pc who voted for abortion.

This issue is, in many ways, the last great civil rights battle in this country – it’s one which a growing number of citizens will face.

It’s also an issue which won’t go away and our demographic pattern will ensure that the longer it’s kicked down the road, the bigger a problem it will become.

We didn’t listen to Marie Fleming and her impassioned pleas for some dignity.

Maybe we’ll listen to Vicky Phelan.

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