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Gino Kenny 'The time has come to grasp the nettle on assisted dying'

As the Joint Committee on Assisted Dying wraps up its public sittings this week, its vice-chair outlines the work done.

THIS WEEK WILL see the final public meeting of the Joint Committee on Assisted Dying. The committee thereafter will meet in private session to draft a report, submitting its recommendations to the government.

That draft report will be finalised by the 8 March and published on the 20th. The committee commenced in June of last year and deliberated over 20 public meetings. It has heard from a variety of witnesses that have come before the committee. Some of these witnesses presented a neutral position, while others were proponents and opponents of assisted dying.

In the legal, ethical, medical, and international modules that the committee examined members were informed and educated on the complexities of assisted dying. Personally, I have learnt a great deal from the past nine months. Some of the testimony at times was difficult to hear. I am in no doubt that this a complex issue for legislators, the medical profession, and society.

Open discussion

The committee has been important in teasing out and scrutinising the variations of legislative approaches in different countries where assisted dying has been made legal. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand only in recent years have made voluntary assisted dying available to their citizens. We can learn from both countries and others on how to implement assisted dying in a safe and regulated model.

Very legitimate questions have been posed about safeguards and the people who could be eligible to avail of assisted dying. Those safeguards are crucially important, and that importance primarily is the framework of any legislation proposal.

The committee heard from experts from the Benelux countries, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The state of Oregon in the US was referenced at the committee. Oregon introduced assisted dying over 20 years ago, and generally, the criteria for eligibility have remained what they were when first introduced.

Personal stories

To understand the issue of assisted dying, we first must understand the common lineage of the very brave individuals who are highlighted through their own personal circumstances. These circumstances were deeply profound and posed a question, not only to themselves and their families but to society in general. Marie Fleming’s landmark Supreme Court case in 2013 and legal judgement have a direct impact on the debate today.

688Marie Fleming_90689843 10/1/2013. Marie Fleming Case. Multiple Sclerosis suffer Marie Flemings and her partner Tom Curran leaving the Four Courts in the High Court in Dublin after she lost her case. Sam Boal Sam Boal

It laid out the foundations that it was permissible for legislators to legislate via the Oireachtas. Others such as Bernadette Ford, Gaynor French, Vicky Phelan and Brendan Clarke have all voiced their support publicly for assisted dying. Both Vicky and Brendan who I got to know in the past number of years have brought a new understanding to the issue.

Vicky Phelan’s public support of the Dignity in Dying Bill in late 2020 was pivotal in the committee’s formation.

As part of its overall report, I believe certain recommendations will not be contentious, like more funding and resources towards hospice and palliative care. As the committee has heard, there are several resource deficits in services for end-of-life care which need to be rectified.

Give them the choice

In principle, I believe the majority of the members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Assisted Dying support assisted dying in specific circumstances. My own opinion on these circumstances and eligibility is based on the New Zealand and Australian legislation. Adults who have a progressive, incurable and terminal physical illness, and who have a prognosis of less than six months to live, or advanced terminal illness causing progressive physical deterioration should, if they choose, be able to avail of assisted dying.

This should expand to neurodegenerative conditions with a prognosis of 12 months or less. The person must be able to consent and have full capacity to access voluntary assisted dying, both at the time of initial request and at the time when assisted dying occurs. This will be one of the key recommendations that I personally will submit during the drafting of the report.

Opinion polls in the past number of years clearly indicate that most people in Ireland would support assisted dying, were it legislated for. This has been consistent and shows that public opinion is supportive of changing the law.

When the committee publishes its report in March it will then be up to the government, in this case the Minister for Justice, to give their opinion on how to proceed. There is an issue, however, with the lifetime of this government given that there must be an election in a year’s time.

In conclusion, overall, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Assisted Dying has brought a better understanding of assisted dying – what it is and what it is not. It has conclusively agreed that this is not a constitutional matter but a matter for the Oireachtas.

It is also important to not conflate other issues with assisted dying. This has proven to be extremely unhelpful and does a disservice to a debate that has for the most part been respectful. I am conscious of the reasons why some in the medical, religious and civic spaces would oppose the introduction of assisted dying.

At the very heart of this debate are those who may find themselves in a situation where they want to die on their own terms. This is a fundamental human right that should be legally and medically possible for those who wish to have a choice to continue with their treatment or not. This is why we must legislate for assisted dying.

Gino Kenny is the People Before Profit TD for Dublin Mid-West and Vice-Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Assisted Dying.

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