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The Iona Blog

The Irish Human Rights Commission finds in favour of the ‘right’ to die

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 7th December 2012

The Irish Human Right Commission has made a submission to the High Court in which it effectively calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide.

They made the submission in a case involving a woman suffering from Multiple Sclerosis who is arguing that she has a human right to have someone assist her suicide.

The IHRC's submission, which has not been made public, is arguing that assisted suicide should be permitted in “defined and extreme” circumstances. That is to say that it believes that the Government should set down in legislation the situations in which assisted suicide should and should not be allowed. (By the way, it does not like the term ‘right to die’).

They argue that this right to access assist suicide flows from “personal autonomy” rights. It would be interesting to see the justification for this. For example, does it quote international human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights? However, the European Court of Human Rights has found no right to die in the Convention. Indeed, the vast majority of signatories to the Convention ban assisted suicide and the ‘right’ to die.

But if a right to assisted suicide flows from personal autonomy, why should the circumstances in which assisted suicide be “defined and extreme”?

If the argument is that, as a sentient and mentally competent person, an individual has the right to do what he or she pleases with his or her own body (which is the essence of the personal autonomy argument), why should that be confined to situations where the person seeking assisted suicide is in an “extreme” situation? (Define “extreme”).

One of the arguments which has been advanced in favour of the current law is that abolishing it would send a signal to vulnerable people that suicide is a socially acceptable course of action.

The IHRC are suggesting that allowing assisted suicide in certain restricted situations would balance society's current desire to vindicate and cherish life on the one hand and the imperative to protect personal autonomy on the other.

But once you send out the message that assisted suicide is ok in certain circumstances, what is the logical break that prevents you from extending it to cover other situations, quite apart from the social signal that a more permissive law sends out?

For example, one might posit that “unbearable pain” was a criterion for allowing assisted suicide. However, pain is actually quite a subjective measurement. Where do you draw the line?

Meanwhile, the plaintiff in the case, Marie Fleming, is asking the court to oblige the Director of Public Prosecutions to provide “guidelines” outlining the factors to be considered when deciding whether to prosecute for assisted suicide.

According to lawyers for Ms Fleming, the European Court for Human Rights ruled that the UK was obliged to publish such guidelines in 2010 after a woman took a case arguing that the lack of such guidelines was a breach of her rights.

The UK guidelines focus on motivation. They attempt to distinguish between those assisting the suicide of a terminally ill person out of “compassion” and those who pressurise a victim to kill themselves. Under these guidelines, the former would likely not face prosecution; the latter probably would.

We've heard a lot about needing greater “clarity” and avoiding “grey areas” in the law lately with respect to our abortion law. However, the British guidelines have introduced a huge grey area into the law concerning assisted suicide.

How do you judge whether someone is acting “compassionately” or seeking to “pressurise” someone? What if, through a sense of “compassion” someone “pressurises” someone and helps them to commit suicide? How do you decide where compassion ends and pressure starts?

Legalising assisted suicide sends a message to people who are terminally ill that their lives are not really worth living. Whatever about increasing their level of physical pain, such a measure is sure to increase the emotional anguish of terminally ill patients.

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