In this final article of the series I want to say why I am committed to campaigning for the introduction of Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) in Ireland.
Unlike so many of those involved in the campaign, I do not have a harrowing story of the ‘bad death’ of one of my close family or friends. Rather, I believe in the dignity of human beings and the quality of human life. By quality I mean the quality of the life as lived. I think I know what makes my life worthwhile and if I lost those things through incapacity or progressive disease, I am not convinced that I would want to continue living. Similarly, If I have a progressive disease, such as motor neuron disease or Alzheimer’s Disease, which will progressively rob me of my capacity to speak, move or even to control my bodily functions, I think I would like to be able to end my life at a time of my choosing — when lifer has become intolerable and there is no prospect of relief. I think that right should be available to everyone (always subject to safeguards about the capacity to make a free and informed decision).
So far, so theoretical. But that had seem hardly seems enough to make me commit a significant part of my effort to campaign for VAD. There was a key moment that changed my position from theoretical to practical.
In October 2017 I was at a meeting at which Gaynor Ffrench spoke. She seized our attention with her opening words: ‘Excuse my using notes, but I’ve got “chemo brain”’. Gaynor a young 48-year-old with a very full life had breast cancer which had spread to her liver and bones and she knew she was dying. She spent her remaining time campaigning for VAD in Ireland, the right to die with dignity. She also achieved a wonderfully bizarre list of things on her bucket list. Gaynor’s presence galvanised several of us at that meeting from being ‘theoretically good’ into campaigners, trying to make our society more compassionate towards the dying. Gaynor died in a hospice less than a year later.
End of Life Ireland is the result of that meeting and in our work we honour Gaynor Ffrench as well as those two other inspirational women, Marie Fleming and Vicky Phelan, who did so much to create public awareness of the issue.
I want to make Ireland a more compassionate society that does not allow anyone to die in great pain and suffering, without offering the choice of a controlled death. An individual’s death is not an isolated incident. Each of us has friends and family who care about us and about whom we care. A controlled, peaceful death benefits not only the individual, but also the family and friends, whose own pain and grief will be considerably eased.
In this series of articles, I have tried set out some of the issues around the complex topic of Voluntary Assisted Dying and to ease concerns about it. Death will not stalk the land. The word ‘voluntary’ is key. International experience shows that VAD will only account for about 2.5-4% of total death. In Ireland that would be 750-1200, out of about 33,000 deaths each year.
In ending this series I invite readers to think about these issues for themselves and to have conversations about them. End of Life Ireland has two useful saying: ‘A kinder death is possible’ and ‘Change starts with a conversation.
You can find out more about Gaynor Ffrench at her Facebook page, Dying with Dignity and in her obituary in the Irish Examiner
Alan Tuffery is a member of End of Life Ireland. We are a voluntary group advocating for legislation to allow Voluntary Assisted Dying in Ireland. This is the last in a series of fourteen short articles on issues about voluntary assisted dying (VAD). The first article can be found here.