The finding of the Irish Supreme Court that citizens have no right to assisted suicide is being welcomed by an ethicist and healthcare professional as an affirmation of the value of human life.
“It's a clear tragedy when society endorses assisted suicide...I was happy to see the supreme court decision in Ireland,” Doctor Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA May 7.
On April 29, the supreme court of the Republic of Ireland ruled against Marie Fleming, who has multiple sclerosis and so is unable to commit suicide. Fleming wanted to ensure that she could end her life with the help of her partner, Tom Curran.
Fleming is in an advanced stage of multiple sclerosis, and is restricted to bed much of the time and has only some effective use of her arms. She reports also having difficulty speaking and swallowing, and frequent severe pain. She cannot control her electric wheelchair, has no bladder control, and requires assistance to eat and drink, and be washed and dressed.
Ireland decriminalized suicide in 1993, but assisting another person to kill themselves is still a criminal offence. Fleming argued that there is a “right to die” and that the prohibition against assisted suicide discriminates against the disabled.
Fleming “states that she now lives with little or no dignity,” and her condition has “left her feeling totally undignified,” according to the ruling.
In its finding, the court said that “there is no constitutional right to commit suicide or to arrange for the determination of one’s life at a time of one’s choosing,” and so Fleming “has no right which may be interfered with by any disability.”
In remarks to CNA, Hilliard reflected that a right to assisted suicide “would undermine the role of physicians as healers, expose the vulnerable to abuse, and would initiate a steady slide toward euthanasia.”
“We don't kill the sufferer to kill the suffering; that's not what health care is about. And it's a societal failure too, in terms of walking with our loved ones.”
She also called the promotion of assisted suicide a “palliative care failure.” Those with diseases such as multiple sclerosis can often fear abandonment, that they won't be cared for because they “won't have the same value in our society.”
“From a medical standpoint, a nursing standpoint, and a social standpoint, it's a communal palliative care failure...so certainly we're happy to see that the Irish supreme court saw this.”
Hilliard pointed out the similarities between the Fleming case and a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Washington v. Glucksberg.
In that decision, authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee, the court found that the U.S. Constitution does not protect the right to assistance in committing suicide.
The loneliness and fear which motivate calls for assisted suicide “means we don't have good palliative and hospice care,” according to Hilliard.
To promote assisted suicide “does the opposite of what people think, in terms of developing a caring approach to end of life care.” Rather, a “holistic perspective” needs to be adopted, which integrates families, palliative care nurses, physicians, patients, and pain control.
Hilliard emphasized the difference between subjects of terminal illness and terminal illnesses themselves. Palliative care deals with “how suffering is to be alleviated, not how to alleviate the sufferer,” she said.
The ethicist said it is important for Catholics to engage in hospice care, because “we can't just say we're against assisted suicide and then let folks continue to suffer.”
“We have to have an organized way of addressing what people think is an unresolvable problem in terms of suffering at the end of life. It's not.”
The good works of palliative care, she said, “are the real alternatives that are going to spare the patient, the physicians, and society from doing down that road towards eugenics.”