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'Willingness on all sides' sees assisted dying become political reality ahead of Dáil vote

The Dying with Dignity Bill will be subject to a Dáil vote on Wednesday.
Oct 4th 2020, 6:15 AM 16,583 35

IN RECENT WEEKS, as if out of nowhere, assisted dying has gone from being a peripheral to a topical issue with cross-party political consensus.  

The idea has come to the fore in the form of the Dying with Dignity Bill, a piece of proposed legislation which was debated in the Dáil this week and which could yet make it to committee stage when it is voted on this Wednesday.

The bill would legislate for medically assisted dying, an option that would allow medical professionals to assist terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

The practice is legal in several other countries and already has a number of high-profile proponents in Ireland.

But is highly contentious and fraught with ethical dilemmas, with fears that it could negatively impact vulnerable members of society.

Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit have all said they will vote in favour of the bill next week, while Government parties will seemingly have a free vote on it.

Last month, Fine Gael TDs and Senators spoke in favour of a free vote on the legislation, although others raised concerns about the divergence of opinion on the issue.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan also said that there was “flexibility” within his party on the issue when he indicated that he could allow a conscience vote on the bill.

However, some Independent TDs are opposed to the bill and it is not known how many Government deputies will vote against progressing it.

Complicated process

The bill is currently at Second Stage and will go to committee stage if it passes on Wednesday.

But this is where it gets complicated: the type of committee that will examine the legislation will depend on how the bill progresses (if it does so at all).

This week, the government tabled an amendment that would allow a special Oireachtas committee to examine the issue of assisted dying – like the recently disbanded Special Committee on Covid-19.

Usually, when a bill proceeds to committee stage, an existing Oireachtas committee responsible for the particular area it covers examines it.

In this case, that could be the Oireachtas committee on Justice and Equality or the Oireachtas committee on Health. 

Members of Cabinet are bound to support the Government’s amendment, but it appears as if dozens of other TDs from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will have a free vote on the bill.

That could mean the amendment is defeated and it simply passes to ‘regular’ committee stage – or alternatively, that it doesn’t pass at all.

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, who put forward the proposed legislation, believes that although the bill should be open to pre-legislative scrutiny, sending it to a special committee would mean it would “never see the light of day again”.

“It would unduly delay the process and it would be difficult to know what happens after that,” he told TheJournal.ie earlier this week.

“My experience in the last four years, in relation to opposition bills, has been pretty bad: they go to committee stage and they’re completely sabotaged by Government TDs.

“In this case, I think there is a willingness on all sides to progress this issue. I think that in the last couple of weeks, the idea has made huge strides.”

Commended

The cross-party support for the issue was evidenced during Thursday’s debate when only one TD spoke against the bill (although two TDs – Mattie McGrath and Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín – sought to but couldn’t due to how speaking time was allocated).

Indeed, it was notable that almost every TD who spoke, including Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee and Alan Farrell, commended Kenny for putting the bill forward in the first place.

Speaking in the Dáil against the bill, however, independent Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick expressed concerns about the impact the bill would have on elderly people and those with disabilities.

“I find it absolutely shocking that some of the most vulnerable people in our society turn on their radios these days and are bombarded with media stories pushing the case legalising assisted suicide,” he said.

“At the very time we should be encouraging people and putting supports in place to help the morale and well-being of people who’ve been through so much… the Dáil is spending time talking about introducing a law that would sanction the ending of people’s lives.”

The Government, however, argued that having a special Oireachtas Committee examine the issue would allow for an in-depth look at what is such a sensitive subject.

The special committee on abortion was held up as an example of where this had been successful previously, and Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte highlighted how a new committee could likewise consider a wide range of opinions from across society on assisted dying.

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It should be noted that the last Dáil already took a limited look at the subject.

Over two days in November 2017, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality heard from experts and advocates for assisted dying, disabilities and palliative care.

The result was a report which urged the Oireachtas to consider referring the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly – something which Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has acknowledged would now be difficult in the midst of a pandemic.

Furthermore, previous assemblies on big social issues have recommended referendums on abortion and marriage equality, but legal experts explained to TheJournal.ie this week that a referendum is not necessary to pass assisted dying legislation.

Regardless, it remains a highly sensitive area, and politicians have repeatedly stressed the need to consider all voices in the debate.

Whether that debate continues in the Oireachtas beyond Wednesday still remains to be seen, but even if it doesn’t, the wider discussion about assisted dying won’t be going away any time soon.

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Stephen McDermott

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