Offbeat (26): Irish also have no right to die!

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By John B. Monteiro
Bellevision Media Network

14 January 2013: If suicide be supposed a crime, it is only cowardice can impel us to it.. If it is no crime, both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence when it becomes a burden. It is the only way that we can then be useful to society, by setting an example which, if initiated, would preserve everyone his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger or misery. – David Hume, Scottish philosopher and historian (1711-1776).

Ireland came into world media focus because of its anti-abortion law that contributed to the death of an Indian woman. Now Ireland is again in media focus because of its anti-suicide law. But, first the facts as reported by Sara O’Connor for Reuters from Dublin.

  An Irish woman terminally ill with multiple sclerosis lost her battle for the lawful right to die in the first case of its kind to be brought in Ireland, Dublin’s High Court said on January 10, 2013.  Marie Fleming, a 59-year-old former university lecturer who is completely paralyzed, made an impassioned plea in December 2012 to establish the right of her partner of 18 years to help her die, an act that could currently see him jailed in mainly Roman Catholic Ireland.

A ’right to die’ debate has played out through recent high-profile court cases in neighboring Britain, where three people all failed in bids to win legal assistance to die. Assisted suicide is only permitted in four European countries: Belgium; Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Judge Nicholas Kearns said Fleming was the most remarkable witness any member of the court had encountered and acknowledged that her life has been "rendered miserable" after being "ravaged by an insidious disease". However he said it would be impossible to tailor legislation governing assisted suicide on an individual basis and doing so would be harmful to the public interest in protecting the most vulnerable members of society.

"There are no words to express the difficulty we had in arriving at this decision," Kearns said, reading a summary of the 121-page judgment. "Yet the fact remains that if this court were to unravel a thread of this law by even the most limited constitutional adjudication in her favor, it would - or at least might - open a Pandora’s box which would be impossible to close."
Suicide was decriminalized in Ireland in 1993, but the ban on helping someone to commit suicide remains, with a jail sentence of up to 14 years.

Kearns said he felt sure the state, which agreed to pay all legal costs, would exercise its discretion in a humane and sensitive fashion in deciding whether to prosecute if Fleming were to be assisted in taking her own life.

The mother of two adult children had told the court in a composed manner last month how her life had become totally undignified and too painful to bear, and said she had planned every detail, including funeral arrangements. Her partner hugged and kissed her after the judgment was handed out and, reading a statement on her behalf outside the court, her solicitor said Fleming greatly appreciated the enormous support she had received from members of the public.

"Obviously Marie is very disappointed and saddened at today’s outcome, and feels it would be inappropriate at the present time to discuss any specific legal aspects of the case having regard to the likelihood of an appeal," solicitor Bernadette Parte said.
When life is woe,
And hope is dumb,
The World says, “Go!”
The Grave says, “Come!”
 - Arthur Guiterman.

The discussion about euthanasia has been around for a long time in India. It got a new lease of life as the Supreme Court resumed final hearing of a case on the subject, filed in December 2009, on March 2, 2011. But, first the facts from my files.

As Anuradha Raman noted in a moving article, aptly titled Comma, Period? in Outlook (28-2-11), in a room strictly off bounds for all except those attending on her, Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, now 60, lies alone. Her eyes are open and staring vacantly into space. She has been lying in this vegetative way, in the twilight zone between life and death, since the night of November 27, 1973, when she was attacked by a ward boy who tied a dog chain around her neck, cutting off air supply to parts of her brain, and sodomised her in the basement of Mumbai’s sprawling King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Parel, where she worked as a nurse. It is said that due to strangulation by the chain, the cortex was damaged and she also had brain stem contusion injury associated with cervical cord injury. Aruna is unable to speak, see, walk or even move voluntarily, though she could still feel the pain. She has been lying in this state with twisted form, rotting teeth and nails growing into her clenched palms, kept alive by mashed food which she automatically swallows.

The Supreme Court admitted Aruna’s petition through her ‘next friend’, Pinki Virani, the journalist-activist, who first brought Aruna’s cruel fate to light through a book on her and has since kept her in the public domain. Her petition in the Supreme Court, was heard by a Bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, argued that since Aruna had consistently been denied the right guaranteed in Article 21, she asked the Court to define ‘life with dignity’ and that her face-feeding to be stopped. Her petition highlighted Aruna’s “persistent vegetative state” for the last 37 years and stated that there is no possibility of improvement in her condition. It pointed  out that she “lives in sub-human conditions” and is “lying in a hospital bed like a dead animal”. It went on to argue that to keep her in this state by feeding her “violates the right to live with dignity” guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The petition also said that there is no up- to- date medical records of her condition and that no scans have been done to ascertain what medicines can be administered to make her comfortable.

When the Court asked KEM Hospital, its Dean, Sanjay Oak, brazenly responded with some PR-type insensitive statement claiming that Aruna ‘accepted food in the normal course’ and is ‘led’ to the toilet by nurses when she makes indicative sounds. He said: “It is our foremost duty to take care of her. The way she has been taken care of also speaks volumes about the nursing at the hospital. She is really precious. Unless the ailing person himself or herself expresses such a desire, who are we to decide that he or she should no longer live?” KEM had issued a factual  affidavit stating, among other things, that Aruna is ‘haemodynamically stable’, ‘her blood pressure, pulse rate are normal’ and that she is in the hospital care because her relatives refused to look after her.

Dr. Ravi Bapat, who was the first doctor to attend on Aruna after she was molested, asks: “Why don’t you leave her alone?…The million dollar question is whose wish, whose pity, who decides and who puts the person to death? Who is to label anyone terminally ill? Medicine is not a mathematical science where 2+2=4. How much inner joy we have of saving human life? Don’t take it away from us. Hope these proponents do not want death clinics to mushroom.” Others of his ilk ask as to how doctors can reconcile mercy killing with the Hippocratic oath they take: “I’ll give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suffer any such counsel”.

There are others who stand for mercy killing or euthanasia. For instance, Dr. Ravindra Dhelia, a member of the Society for the Right to Die with Dignity, which pleads for assisted death for individuals who wish to die after all medical help has failed them, fully agreed with Pinki Virani’s arguments. He said: “Voluntary euthanasia is not about ending a life but it is about ending a deadened survival. As far as Aruna is concerned, mercy killing is a dignified exit.”

Mercy killing or euthanasia petitions have hitherto been filed in High Courts and the President – with no consent granted. This was the first time that the Supreme Court had admitted such a petition. Among other things pro-life lobby has been harping at is the locus standi of Pinki Virani who had filed the petition as ‘next friend’. In most cases, the terminal patients are beyond making a rational choice. The Supreme Court had to rule on euthanasia per se and also who can sponsor euthanasia and under what safeguards so that this exit route is not abused – say to grab the assets of the mercy-killed.

The subject is open to many views. What are yours? Chew on this!


John B. Monteiro, journalist and author, is Editor of his website, (Interactive Cerebral Challenger) – with provision for instant response. Try responding!



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Comments on this Article
g.w.carlo, hassan Mon, January-14-2013, 9:37
Okay, life is very precious. Then why death penalty? Do judges think they are GOD?
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