Irish Doctors Reject Parliamentary Committee’s Support for Assisted Suicide

The committee’s report, released on March 20, recommended the introduction of laws permitting assisted suicide for persons diagnosed with terminal diseases.

Irish Parliament, known as the Oireachtas
Irish Parliament, known as the Oireachtas (photo: noel bennett/Shutterstock)

A committee of the Irish Parliament has recommended that the government move to introduce laws permitting assisted suicide, which critics say would see Ireland following the “chaotic horror” of Canada’s controversial Medial Assistance in Dying program.

The recommendations — which have been widely criticized by the medical community — have generated little news interest in Ireland since, as the committee was about to release its report, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar unexpectedly announced his resignation. The two moves are unrelated.

The committee of the national parliament, known as the Oireachtas, issued a report March 20 recommending the introduction of assisted suicide for persons diagnosed with an illness or medical condition that is classified as “incurable, irreversible, progressive and advanced” and likely to cause death within six months, or within 12 months in the case of neurodegenerative conditions. Another provision is that the illness must be causing suffering “that cannot be relieved in a manner that the ill person finds tolerable.”

The recommendations are supported by nine of the committee’s 14 members. However, three others — including the chairman of the committee, Michael Healy-Rae — issued a dissenting minority report calling for the existing ban on assisted suicide to be retained. One committee member abstained from the final vote, and another was absent.

Nominations to replace Varadkar as prime minister were due to close March 24. However, most observers expect that the only candidate will be 37-year-old higher education minister Simon Harris, who has previously called for the legalization of assisted suicide.

Doctors Push Back

The professional body that regulates and ensures professional standards for doctors in Ireland has rejected the report.

The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) insisted March 20 that it opposed “the introduction of any legislation supportive of assisted suicide because it is contrary to best medical practice.”

Dr. Diarmuid O’Shea, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, insisted that “dying and death are part of a continuum of care for any person with a chronic or life-limiting illness.

“Dying with dignity in our society is made possible by the delivery of compassionate, supportive, and expert care by physicians, nurses, health and social care professionals, and others working in hospitals, hospices, GP [general practitioner] practices and other community settings across our country,” he added.

“Such care and the people providing it should be appropriately supported and funded,” O’Shea said in a statement rejecting the committee’s report.

Dr. Feargal Twomey, chairman of the RCPI expert group on the issue and a consultant in palliative medicine, stressed that such efforts “are supported by specialist palliative care teams, by the efforts of families and friends and, by extension, the support of society.”

“Legislating for assisted suicide threatens to undermine those efforts. Introduction of legislation on assisted suicide has the potential for immense harm and unintended consequences, and our view is that the potential harms outweigh the arguments in favor of legislation for assisted suicide,” he said in a statement.

The RCPI represents almost three-quarters of all clinically active doctors in Ireland. Both the RCPI and the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland gave evidence to the committee rejecting plans to legalize assisted suicide.

Professor Siobhán MacHale, a member of the Human Rights and Ethics Committee of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, which has about 1,300 psychiatrist members, said “the Oireachtas committee’s recommendation of the introduction of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Ireland undermines Irish society’s strong focus on suicide-prevention policy.”

“Any terminal diagnosis is by its nature deeply upsetting and can often lead to a patient experiencing a wish to die in the course of the associated shock and grief,” she said.

“The college believes that we can do better in providing compassionate care to those who are dying than to introduce assisted suicide and euthanasia in Ireland,” MacHale said in a statement.

Other Critical Perspectives

Sen. Rónán Mullen, one of the committee members who dissented, described the report as “a travesty” of the evidence heard by the committee. He said that evidence did not establish the case for assisted suicide and euthanasia, and added that the report’s own arguments don’t justify the recommendations that it makes.

“If society was merely a collection of individuals, then laws founded solely on personal autonomy might make sense. But we are not islands. We are a tangled web of interconnected and vulnerable lives, all of which are worth living. Legislation for assisted dying would endanger the lives and happiness of many people,” Mullen told the Register.

Professor Conor Casey, an expert on the Irish Constitution based at the University of Surrey in the U.K., gave evidence to the committee.

Responding to the final report on social-networking site X, formerly Twitter, he said that in his view, “contra the committee majority, legislating for intentional taking of life is unconstitutional.”

A spokesman for Hope Ireland, which describes itself as a coalition of medical professionals and disability-rights advocates who aim to bring informed perspectives to the debate around euthanasia and assisted suicide in Ireland, warned that “the permissive findings of the report produced by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Assisted Dying will quickly bring Ireland into the same chaotic horror as Canada.”

Canada’s so-called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) law has been controversial, with a United Nations watchdog warning that people may feel pressured to seek medically assisted death.

In addition to Canada, some form of assisted suicide is legal in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ecuador, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and in some U.S. and Australian states.

Courts in Colombia, Germany and Italy have legalized assisted suicide, but their governments have not legislated or regulated the practice yet.

Bishops’ Statements

In their submission to the Irish committee, the country’s Catholic bishops called for greater investment in end-of-life care.

“People across Ireland are already helped, ethically and legally, to approach death with dignity, within the interdisciplinary framework of good palliative care. Assisted suicide is something very different and we believe that it would undermine the common good,” the prelates said.

Meanwhile, France’s bishops issued a strongly worded statement March 19 in response to a draft law on assisted suicide that French President Emmanuel Macron described as a “law of fraternity.”

Gathered at the Marian shrine of Lourdes, the bishops expressed their “great concern” and “deep reservations” in the face of the draft law that plans to authorize euthanasia and assisted suicide. “Let us not misdirect the fraternity,” the bishops said, rebuffing the president’s words. “We reaffirm our attachment to the French way of refusing induced death.”

They called on the French government to invest more in developing palliative care, so that it is accessible to the entire population, which is currently not the case, due to a lack of financial resources allocated to medical facilities and services.