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The three landmark cases that shaped assisted suicide law in Ireland

Yesterday a woman in Dublin was charged with assisting the suicide of another woman. Any decision in her case will set a precedent in Ireland.
Nov 21st 2013, 7:30 AM 12,183 0

YESTERDAY, DUBLIN WOMAN Gail O’Rourke was charged with assisting the suicide of another woman between 10 March and 6 June 2011.

The case was sent forward for trial which will begin on 13 December.

There is very little precedence for these kinds of cases in Irish law though it is made clear that assisting another person to end their own life is a criminal offence.

The sentence for this can be up to 14 years in prison. While O’Rourke’s case is the first of this kind – where a person is actually being prosecuted for assisting a suicide – there have been three landmark cases both here and in the UK that are likely to have a bearing on her case.

Natural death

The first time a court made a ruling on this was in 1995 when the Supreme Court decided that the right to die included the right to die a natural death. In this case, the woman involved had been in a near-persistent vegetative state for over two decades.

Though permission was given to remove the woman’s feeding tube so she could die naturally, the court stressed that it would not condone any attempt to end a person’s life through positive action.

Debbie Purdy

Ten years later, a case in the UK set the agenda for Ireland with a woman with Multiple Sclerosis, Debbie Purdy, attempting to ensure her husband would not face criminal charges if he played a part in her death. She argued that she had a right to know whether he would be prosecuted if he accompanied her to a Swiss clinic where she wished to die if her condition worsened.

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Debbie Purdy with her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente, at the High Court in 2008 (Image: Tim Ireland/PA).

She won on appeal in 2009 and, in response, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines recommending that a person assisting another in committing suicide should not be prosecuted. The full list can be read here but they include an examination of the motivation of the person assisting the suicide.

However the DPP made it clear at the time that relatives actively helping a person to die would not be covered by the guidelines and individuals could still be expected to be charged with murder or manslaughter.

Marie Fleming

The most recent case and the one that has been described as the most significant in this area of law in Ireland was that of Marie Fleming, a former UCD lecturer. The 58 year old had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and was in the terminal stages of the illness when she and her partner Tom Curran mounted a legal challenge against the State.

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Fleming no longer had the use of her limbs and said she wished to die at the time of her choosing and with the assistance of her partner as she was not physically capable of taking direct action herself. However she did not want to risk the potential legal repercussions for her partner, who could have faced 14 years in prison for assisting her.

At the end of Fleming’s court battle earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not contain either a right to suicide or to arrange for the end of one’s life.

Gail O’Rourke’s case

Sharon O’Connor, who is a solicitor with Beauchamps Solicitors, told TheJournal.ie that Fleming’s case was “hugely significant” and “really shaped where we are at the moment”.

“This will be the first type of case before the courts like this so it will be interesting to see what happens, ” she said.

O’Connor said the UK guidelines are also likely to be considered this case as the court looks at O’Rourke’s motivations and at the capacity of the woman she assisted, Bernadette Forde, to make the decision.

There are very few countries in which assisted suicide is legal but groups have been lobbying for years for a referendum on the issue and the government is considering bringing legislation into being. O’Connor said this case will now play a part in shaping Irish law on assisted dying in Ireland.

Read: Woman charged with assisting suicide in Dublin>

Supreme Court: Ireland has a right to life, not a right to die >

Poll: Do you think the law should be changed to allow for assisted suicide? >

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Michelle Hennessy

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