Adjournment Debate. - Death by Assisted Suicide.

First, I wish to express my condolences to the family and friends of the unfortunate victim of the recent assisted suicide in Dublin. The fact that an assisted suicide could be planned and carried out in this jurisdiction is of extreme legal, moral and ethical concern. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dan Wallace, but I am disappointed the Minister for Health and Children, to whose area of responsibility this matter relates, is not in a position to be present.

The issue further casts a severe question mark over the services available in the State for those who suffer mental illness, depression or deep despair and who see no solution to their difficulties other than taking their life. In 1999 and 2000, a total of 828 people were killed on Irish roads. In the same years, official figures show that 852 people died by suicide. It is accepted that the suicide figure is under recorded. In 2001, Exchequer funding for road safety agencies was an inadequate €22.65 million, excluding expenditure by the Garda on enforcement of road traffic law. In the same year, just €1.05 million was allocated for suicide prevention. The State's investment and consequent interest in suicide prevention must be seriously questioned. This tragic issue which causes such trauma and devastation for families and communities must have a higher priority for Government and its agencies. Services must be made available, visible and easily accessible for all who are in crisis. The unfortunate victim of the recent event in Dublin suffered deep depression and had undergone numerous courses of treatment. She was once hospitalised for six months after an attempted suicide.

Research shows that those who have a history of self-harm are a high risk group and are between ten and 30 times more at risk of suicide than the general population. The services should have identified her as having a high risk of suicide and made the necessary services available on a continuous basis to enable her to lead as full and enjoyable a life as possible.

The research also highlights our appalling suicide prevention policies. There is an urgent need to debate the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The debate in Britain which resulted from the decision of a British woman totally paralysed by a degenerative nervous disease to bring a case to the High Court to win her right to die presents legal and ethical problems which will be faced by this State in the very near future. It poses the question: does a person who believes that his or her quality of life has deteriorated so badly have a right to decide to die? The case also presents a further question: should a person requested for help be exempt from criminal prosecution if help is given to a person to take his or her own life?

In recent years international opinion regarding euthanasia in cases of serious physical illness has become more liberal. Suicide was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993, the last country in western Europe to do so. The Act of the Oireachtas introduced at the time expressly criminalised aiding and abetting, counselling and procuring the suicide of another. A person found guilty of such an offence is liable to imprisonment for a term of up to 14 years. This clearly outlines the current legal situation. Pressure will come on how to reinterpet or even change this.

Apart from serious moral and ethical principles involved, there are serious societal reasons for disallowing euthanasia. The main reason is the fear of developing the slippery slope whereby if euthanasia becomes acceptable under any circumstances, the boundaries of what is considered lawful killing would be stretched even wider. This has happened elsewhere.

In the Netherlands, assisted suicide and euthanasia are allowed under certain circumstances. A case brought before the courts in 2000 clarified several issues regarding assisted suicide. It confirmed that suffering need not be physical and that a person may not be terminally ill for euthanasia to be permissible.

We must guard against such a situation developing here. There is a blurring between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Again, there is evidence that there are cases of ending the life of patients with a mental handicap and dementia. The slippery slope is on the way to involuntary euthanasia for social reasons. Is it possible that the elderly, especially those who are elderly and rich, will become dispensable? The acid test for our society is how it protects the life and promotes the well being of its most vulnerable citizens, the very young, the very old, the chronically ill and those with severe disability. We, as a nation, must never in any way compromise this.

I have been asked questions on the merit of ending somebody's life who is severely physically and mentally ill and in severe pain with no prospect of a cure. I have close contact with the hospice movement here and immediate and personal knowledge of the services provided by Milford Care Centre. The hospice movement enables people, regardless of their illness, to live life to the end, to live it with dignity, to die with dignity and with efficient pain control. The debate must surround how we cater for and invest in facilities to ensure those who are terminally ill at the end of their days have as good a quality of life and pain control as possible and as a means of doing this we must invest heavily in the hospice movement.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, I thank the Deputy for providing me with an opportunity to address this sensitive matter. On my own behalf and on behalf of the Minister I extend sincerest sympathies and condolences to the family of the deceased person.

The Minister would like to remind the House, however, that it is not his practice to comment upon ongoing Garda investigations. The events referred to by the Deputy are very recent and the House will appreciate that it would neither be appropriate nor helpful for the Minister to go into very specific detail or speculate as to the circumstances behind them. Obviously, it is of paramount importance that nothing is said or done which could interfere with or prejudice the outcome of a Garda investigation into any alleged crime which may have taken place in this instance or any likely future prosecutions which may result arising from the investigation.

Mindful of the above, the Minister can, however, inform the House of the following on the basis of communications received from the Garda authorities. The Minister understands that on 26 February 2002 the body of a woman who had been suffering from depression was found in a house in Donnybrook. She died from gas poisoning. Garda investigations so far indicate that the deceased may have sought assistance in arranging her death and an investigation to establish the full circumstances surrounding her death, which involves making inquiries inside and outside the jurisdiction, is under way.

It may, at this point, be worthwhile to briefly set out the legislation in relation to the issue at hand. The Criminal Law (Suicide) Act, 1993, decriminalised suicide. However, the Act also provides that a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide or attempted suicide of another shall be guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of up to 14 years imprisonment. Proceedings may only be instituted with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Minister would also like to deal with the manner in which the media report suicide. This story is clearly of legitimate public interest and it must be acknowledged that, on the whole, the media have shown considerable judgment and restraint. Nevertheless, the danger of so-called copycat suicides is a real issue, one with which the media and educators generally have to be extremely careful. We also have to be very aware of the feelings of the bereaved. The Minister, therefore, endorses the views expressed in the booklet, Media Guidelines on the Portrayal of Suicide, jointly published by the Samaritans and the Irish Association of Suicidology in January 2000. Media coverage of suicidal behaviour should project an objective, yet preventive message as well as educate and inform the public about the subject. It is believed that by providing the public with information about the warning signs of suicide, how to help, who to call, and where to get help, the media could help prevent potential suicides by providing a positive and preventive message to balance the story.

The national task force on suicide, in its report published in 1998, put forward a national suicide prevention-reduction strategy and identified the various authorities with jurisdiction in suicide prevention strategies and their respective responsibilities. The Minister is informed that all recommendations, in so far as they relate to the Garda Siochána, have been implemented.

The Minister would like to assure the House that the Garda Síochána will continue to pursue its investigations until such time as the matter is resolved, in whatever manner that may be.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 February 2002.