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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Jun 1993

Vol. 136 No. 10

Criminal Law (Suicide) (No. 2) Bill, 1993: Committee and Final Stages.

Section 1 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 2 stand part of the Bill."

My query arises from what the Minister said in response to Senator McGowan's contribution. As this Bill has been passed by the Dáil there is no real prospect of amending it. I am persuaded by the Senator's reference to the term "commit". I accept it is a matter for the parliamentary draughtsman to find an appropriate term. An amendment to the Bill at this stage would cause practical problems.

The word "commit" classically applies to offences. All of us fall into the habit of saying, for example, "committing suicide" or "committing an offence". The word does not apply to an ordinary action untainted by criminality or illegality. Retaining the term may not be deliberate on anyone's part but, nevertheless, even in such an enlightened Bill the old terminology remains. A more neutral word could not be substituted at this point but, perhaps, that could be done in the future. The word "effect" could be used in regard to suicides in the Bill. One would hardly use the word "achieve" because that would be a term of commendation.

Would the word "suffer" be better?

It might. Senator McGowan's suggestion has merit. I remember the first time I was in this House the Minister's predecessor, our beloved colleague, Deputy Lenihan, explained he could not accept an amendment because his parliamentary draughtsman would be "in high dudgeon". That did not commend itself to the Members at the time such as Senator Sheehy-Skeffington. I find it interesting to hear 28 years later the parliamentary draughtsman is mentioned, not in high dudgeon——

But extremely annoyed?

Yes. I suggest the Minister consult any lexicon she can to find a less tainted word than "commit".

Unlike Senator O'Kennedy, I am not a lawyer. Second, I am not the parliamentary draughtsman and I am glad I am not. I would not have any difficulty in accepting a word like "effect" but as the Bill was prepared by the parliamentary draughtsman it will be necessary to see if that word will be legally acceptable. I have no difficulty with doing that but I do not know if the Leader of the House can allow me the necessary time.

Subsection (2) has been discussed at length. Any movement away from section 2 as drafted might allow for euthanasia. The experience in the Netherlands is that while the law was not changed to allow for euthanasia there is a tolerance of it. There are now a large number of involuntary euthanasias because the frontiers were pushed back. This is an important section and I disagree with some of my colleagues on that issue.

I should like to quote what Dr. Kelleher, a leading investigator of suicide in Ireland, quoted by Senator Crowley, said in regard to euthanasia. He said:

For the caring professions the dilemma is even more starkly put. How can doctors, nurses or social workers reduce suicide and rehabilitate self-poisoners and those who harm themselves if beneath the surface they countenance these behaviours? It is not farfetched to envisage a time in the Western World when the cost of maintaining and preserving life will be seen as too great particularly when the individual is no longer productive even though he may have been productive when age and health were on his side. If doctors enter into the business of assisting suicide then those who see the treatment of the chronically disabled as being an unproductive loss of society's resources may also find means to reward surreptitiously those professionals who put a medical stamp of approval on the despatch of the disagreeable.

My next point is about a different part of the Minister's response and the Bill can cater for it. Section 5 of my Bill was intended to help improve the collection of suicide statistics. The Minister has said this will only be improved marginally. Some way must be found, by amendment to the Coroners Act or some other method, to ensure we obtain figures of the true extent of suicide. Until we know the true extent of the problem we cannot implement proper anti-suicide measures. A problem cannot be dealt with fully until the extent of it is known.

One can make a distinction in regard to euthanasia. That would arise through the active intervention of another party who does something for a person suffering from ill-health or a condition. It would not be the direct action of the person suffering.

I am referring to the section on aiding and abetting.

Nonetheless, euthanasia as it is practised is not related to the wishes of the person suffering. It is often the decision of someone who intervenes to terminate suffering or, as it might be seen, a life with no further prospect of useful purpose. I sympathise with Senator Neville's concern but that distinction can be made.

An earlier speaker, I believe it was Senator Magner, said the pain and suffering an individual was undergoing meant there was no other option as he or she saw it. I am not saying Senator Magner is presenting the case in that way. That shows an impoverished attitude to pain and suffering. It is not for me to proclaim that many can turn the experience of pain into a positive attitude, provided they have a spiritual conviction. I am not here to preach but for those who have no spiritual anchor pain and suffering have no meaning. In that case the only option is the termination of this useless, meaningless, unacceptable life.

For those with something to hold on to the option of suicide would never arise. How many times did previous generations say, "Welcome be the will of God"? Are we allowed to say that anymore or is it too old-fashioned to contemplate saying it? For people who said that suffering would never have been a justification for looking at the only other option. I am neither qualified nor entitled to judge but where we have inherited values to positively cope with pain and suffering that have enhanced sufferers and their families we should not let it be said the termination of life is the only option.

I fundamentally reject the idea that there are people whose religious adherence is so weak they cannot cope with life or with pain. Suicide affects people who decide for themselves.

I did not say that.

Regarding euthanasia, there are people who decide for themselves that the quality of their life is no longer bearable. They take a conscious decision and, in many cases, it has little to do with the hereafter. Ludovic Kennedy produced a report on the Euthanasia Society of London. People with a deep conviction and great faith and belief in God have decided for themselves in a logical way that they no longer wish to remain alive. I respect such decisions and they are for the individual to make.

I do not wish to make any judgment on such decisions. I have no right or entitlement to do so. However, in so far as we endeavour to promote values in society, we should recognise that it is positive if there are those who have the strength of those values.

Our understanding is also important.

Our understanding and sympathy is also required. However, we should promote positive values.

We must distinguish the discussion on euthanasia from the present position on medical technology outlined by Senator Henry, where a person can be clinically dead but kept alive by machinery. Like the Minister, I am not qualified or experienced to elaborate on this issue.

Regarding euthanasia, one can accept the practise in certain circumstances, but is it possible to prevent the spread of the practise? For example, in the Netherlands euthanasia has now spread to the involuntary, where it is not the patient but the family or other third parties making the decision on the patient's behalf. The Dutch authorities are now retreating from that situation and examining a society that has developed in this manner. My concern is that if the door is opened at all on this issue, how can it be prevented from opening further? The Bill prevents that door from opening and for that reason I welcome this section.

Regarding the issue of statistics raised by Senator Neville, I understand that since 1967 a special form is completed by every garda investigating a death for the coroner in which he or she indicates whether he or she believes the death was accidental or suicidal. Up to 1985 this form was used in conjunction with the coroner's verdict to determine suicide statistics. Since 1985 coroner's have not returned verdicts of suicide; however, they do return verdicts such as self inflicted killing.

There has been speculation that official records seriously underestimate the true incidence of suicide. However, the CSO does not agee with this view. The CSO, I understand, has co-operated in some detailed studies and the conclusion is that the official data probably understates the actual number of suicides by perhaps 15 to 20 per cent at most. A number of studies have been undertaken in regard to this issue. I accept Senator Neville's concerns in regard to correct and updated statistics.

Regarding aiding and abetting, and the disquiet in the medical profession on this Bill and, specifically, the provision whereby a person who aids and abets or counsels and so on is committing a crime, the concerns of the medical profession revolve around two areas both of which have been mentioned by Senators. I should like to refer to the medical doctor who prescribes medication, whether in tablet form or otherwise, to a person who takes all the medication at once and dies in consequence. I do not believe anybody could condone a situation where that medical practitioner would be accused of aiding, abetting or counselling a person to commit suicide and there is no such intention in the Bill.

Senator Neville raised the question of a person who is clinically dead and a decision is taken by the family, on the advice of a doctor, to turn off a machine, but before doing so to donate organs from the person's body. It would be a tragedy if in some way that work were to be prevented because, under the Bill, either the family or the doctor would be accused of aiding and abetting. That is not the intention of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 3 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank everybody for their kind remarks. This issue has interested me for some time. At a Young Fine Gael Conference in 1990 an excellent case was put forward by a delegate from Clare on the issue. We discussed the matter over a few months and prepared a case. The Minister takes the credit today and I thank her and my fellow Senators for their kind remarks.

The Minister and the Senator are both entitled to the credit.

I thank Senator Neville again for keeping this matter in focus over a long period. I am happy that I was the Minister for Justice to bring forward this Bill. I would also like to say a sincere go raibh maith agat leis na Seanadoirí ar fad, a Chathaoirligh, a ghlac pairt sa diospóireacht anseo inniú, agus mo bhuíochas a ghlacadh as ucht comh sciopaidh agus a d'eirigh linn an diospóireacht a fháil tríd an Teach. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.