Marie Fleming went to the High Court in Dublin today. She is a prisoner but not in the conventional sense. She lives her incarceration courtesy of an ailing body from which she wishes to escape at a time of her choosing. Diagnosed in 1986 as suffering from multiple sclerosis she is now in the terminal stages of the illness but does not have the power to end her own life. Guilty of no crime, Irish law has condemned her for what has been inflicted on her rather than what she has inflicted on another.
Faced with that overwhelming threat to her personal autonomy she is requesting that her loved ones be free to enable her to bring her life to an end when she so decides. The obstacle in her path is the current law which would leave anyone rendering assistance to her liable to prosecution. Section 2.2 of the Criminal Law Suicide Act ‘renders it an offence to aide, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another.’ The penalty is anything up to 14 years in jail.
Her situation is unenviable. Facing a diminishing quality of life where 'when you have to be showered, toileted and fed you start to feel like a nobody,' she remains in control of her senses and wants to die before ‘I more than likely could choke to death, where my swallow would stop and then the saliva would dribble out of my mouth or choke me to death.’
It is the first time a case of this type has been taken in Ireland. On previous occasions Irish citizens denied the right to an assisted death in their own country felt compelled to travel to Ludwig Mineli’s Dignitas clinic in Zurich. However Marie Fleming who joined Dignitas five years ago, said she did not want to die ‘in an industrial estate far from home.’
Although the criminalisation of suicide was dropped in 1993, a prohibition on assisting someone to die continues to remain in place. Marie Fleming is challenging its constitutionality on the grounds that it discriminates against disabled people. Her partner who is willing to assist her to bring her life to a close, Tom Curran, has claimed ‘her rights have been taken away, the right to take her own life has been taken away because of her disability.’
In her drive for a just outcome she is also supported by her children:
A lot of tears were shed and a lot of questions asked, but they see me and know how my life has deteriorated to such an extent that I can't help myself with even just minor things like showering.
Yet they too would face prosecution and possible imprisonment were they to be present in the room with her where someone was helping her to die.
In recent weeks it has become clear that for all the serial bobbing and weaving of its governments Irish society stands poised to push back the boundaries that encroach on personal autonomy. That a disabled dying Irish woman has stepped into the breach to assert the rights of all is at the same time inspirational and infuriating. She does so because she must. That she must is shameful.