Do we have a right to choose to die?

The Hist debates the divisive and difficult topic of euthanasia

On Wednesday evening, The Hist engaged in what was introduced by Record Secretary, Caoimhin Hamill, as a “dark debate”. The motion, ‘This House Believes in a Right to Die’, was chaired by Senator Ivana Bacik, the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin. The Hist were also joined by guest speaker, Tom Curran who is an active campaigner for the right to die in Ireland and a director of Exit, an organisation that provides information on assisted suicide.

The opening speaker Sarah McGuinness, framed her proposal with a bleak picture of the daily life of someone suffering from a debilitating illness: “You couldn’t clean yourself, you couldn’t dress yourself and you couldn’t even get out of bed. You can’t eat except through a tube”. “None of us”, she said, “should be condemned to a life of misery” and individuals should be entitled to more autonomy over their own lives.

On behalf of the opposition, Dáire Tully approached this “contentious issue” by highlighting the case of Aurelia Brouwers, the twenty-nine year-old Dutch woman, who despite suffering no physical impediment, was granted the right to die last December. Tully called for “real solutions” and “proper mental health care”, however, drew criticism from the audience when viable solutions for those suffering from physical illness were not forthcoming.

Guest speaker for the proposition, Tom Curran, stood before the GMB chamber and admitted that when asked to speak about the right to die: “I never know what to say”. Sharing his experience of caring for his terminally ill wife, Marie, and her decision to end her life on her own terms he recounted their research into the possibility of assisted suicide. Traveling to Switzerland was their only option but Marie didn’t want to go. In his own words: “she was in our home, that’s where she wanted to stay and that’s where she wanted to die”. Unable to receive medical care, Curran imported the drug ‘Nembutal’ from Mexico and recalled the impact of receiving this fatal package; “she just relaxed, completely,  because she was now in control” and “we just got on with living”. Curran consolidated this point by explaining that in Oregon, where ‘the Death with Dignity Act’ allows terminally ill patients to receive a prescription of a lethal dose of drugs, only 60% of these of these prescriptions are ever actually used. He claimed it “helps them live not helps them die”.

Lizzy Younger challenged this by drawing on her personal experience. She criticised the proposition for suggesting that a dignified death is unattainable without euthanasia. Having lost three of her grandparents to “horrific” diseases, Younger is no stranger to the world of hospice care, where she saw “nurses and doctors who lived their every day to provide dignity in death”. She proposed that instead of legitimising euthanasia, “death should be more normalised” as it is “completely natural and part of the normal cycle of life”.

The third speaker for the proposition was Junior Sophister medical student, Melissa Barnes. In response to Younger’s emphasis on palliative care, she cited lack of resources and reaffirmed that for some, “palliative care isn’t enough”. Barnes highlighted what she felt was the hypocrisy of being willing to “reel out every possible medical intervention” to try and prolong a life, but not to afford similar respect to the desire to “die now” and end suffering.

Yann Blake highlighted the risk of corruptions and abuses that could motivate individuals to opt for euthanasia such as “manipulation of the family” that may occur due to the lure of a “money inheritance” or for the “family interest”. He also questioned the ability of the terminally ill to “form and pronounce a decision” as many receive medication that strongly affects emotions and can provoke irrational decisions.  

Brid O’Donnell concluded the arguments for the proposition by commenting that life and death can be equated to “yin and yang, both need each other” yet “one is an enabled right and one of them isn’t”. Placing the emphasis on the importance of choice, O’Donnell stated “even though I have the right to do something, I don’t have to do it”. O’Donnell also assured that with rights, there always come safeguards to stop abuses, and the right to die would not differ.

The GMB voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion as the proposition was dominant throughout. The Chair, Senator Bacik, summarised the debate to be “excellent”, “thoughtful” and “mostly respectful”.