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Legal situation

In short

In Ireland, euthanasia and assisted suicide are forbidden. Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Assisted suicide is forbidden as such. Passive euthanasia (quickening of the patient’s death by removing feeding tubes, etc) is permissible in Ireland since the Supreme Court decision in In Re Ward of Court 1996. 

Through the years, several attempts are made to create a Dying with Dignity Bill. In September 2020, a Dying with Dignity bill was reintroduced for consideration in the Dáil, the lower house of Ireland’s legislature. The 7th October 2020, this bill has passed its first formal vote in the Dáil. 

Assisted suicide 

Ireland is one of the countries in which the act of suicide was prohibited the longest time. Suicide was defined a crime till 1993. Then the so-called Criminal Law (Suicide) Act made the act of suicide no longer punishable. However, assisted suicide is still forbidden (article 2-2 of this act). 

According to The Mayo News, the constitutionality of the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993 was upheld in both the High Court and Supreme Court in 2013, in the landmark Fleming v Ireland decision. Whilst the Supreme Court determined that there was no constitutional right to assisted suicide, it did state that the Oireachtas was free to pass legislation regulating it. In 2015 a woman prosecuted in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for assisting another person to die by suicide was found not guilty. 

Guide to professional conduct and ethics for registered medical practitioners

The Medical Council recognises the right of every competent adult patient to consent to or refuse medical treatment. The objective of applying this principle to advance directives is to ensure that doctors continue to provide medical treatment to patients in accordance with their wishes and values. Where a competent adult patient makes a specific and informed decision to refuse future medical treatment in the event of his/her incapacity, this decision must be respected. Patients should be encouraged to nominate a trusted person to interpret their wishes in the event of any ambiguity.

In section 46 of this guide (8th Edition 2019) two important rules are stated:

9) You must not take part in the deliberate killing of a patient. 

3) Usually, you will give treatment that is intended to prolong a patient’s life. However, there is no obligation on you to start or continue treatment, including resuscitation, or provide nutrition and hydration by medical intervention, if you judge that the treatment is unlikely to work; or might cause the patient more harm than benefit; or is likely to cause the patient pain, discomfort or distress that will outweigh the benefits it may bring.

Courtcase of Marie Fleming

Marie Fleming was a 59-year-old woman who had multiple sclerosis. She was in the final stages of MS, could only move her head, was not able to swallow and she lived in constant pain. She wanted to end her own life but was unable to do this herself. Therefore she asked a guarantee of non prosecution of the state if her partner, Tom Curran, would help her to die. The public prosecutor rejected this request and the woman went to Court. In January 2013, she  lost her case at the High Court in Dublin. In April that year also her appeal was rejected, this time by the Irish Supreme Court.

Marie Fleming loses right-to-die appeal in Republic of Ireland – BBC News

Dying with Dignity Bill 2020

The full name of this bill is: ‘Bill entitled an Act to make provision for assistance in achieving a dignified and peaceful end of life to qualifying persons and related matters’ and can be found here

The bill is focused on assisting in suicide but leaves space for active euthanasia (administration of the lethal substance by the physician) when the patient is not capable to drink or swallow and also in other ways not capable to self-administer the lethal substance. The physician-assisted suicide may only be given in case of a “terminal illness”. Other than in other jurisdictions, like in Australia or the USA, this bill does not set a time limit for an “expected death” (usually 6 months in other countries) but speaks of a situation in which “the person is likely to die as a result of that illness or complications relating thereto”. Another part of the bill is a duty to refer the patient to another doctor when the first doctor is not willing to perform assisted suicide. 

The bill goes further than other such laws in Europe, pro-life activists are warning. Read more on this point of view on the website of Cruxnow.  

Right to Die Societies in Ireland

At this moment, Ireland does not have any Right to Die Society. 

Positions in Ireland

The Hope Ireland group

The Hope Ireland group is ‘a coalition of medical professionals and disability rights advocates who aim to bring informed perspectives to the debate around euthanasia and assisted suicide in Ireland’. They argue that ‘the introduction of assisted suicide and euthanasia is a regressive step for vulnerable people – particularly the elderly and those with disabilities.’

No professional medical body in Ireland supports the Dying with Dignity Bill which has ‘very few safeguards’ to protect vulnerable people. 

Vicky Phelan

The Irish woman Vicky Phelan, being diagnosed with terminal cancer after having initially been given the all-clear, supports the Dying with Dignity bill but does not want to see it go to Citizens’ Assembly. Phelan told The Irish Independent: “I also don’t think that it is something that should be voted on by a Citizens Assembly since the courts ruled that there is nothing to stop the Oireachtas from legislating to allow for assisted dying as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place. I believe that this bill provides those safeguards.” She added: “I would like to see this Dáil having the balls to deal with this bill and to vote it through to give people like me the option of dying with dignity at home here in Ireland.” During a debate on the bill on Thursday night (the 1st of October), Labour leader Alan Kelly read out a statement from Vicky Phelan: “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,” the statement said. “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. Do not kick this issue down the road for another 12 months. Please.” 

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