On Assisted Suicide: An Interview with Tom Curran

Motley staff writer Ryan O’Neill spoke with Tom Curran, to explain the central message and objectives of the Right to Die Ireland Campaign

The topic of euthanasia is a contentious one in Ireland. In 1993, the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act decriminalised suicide, but made it a criminal offence to assist another person in taking their own life. Assisted suicide has nonetheless been brought sharply into focus by several high-profile cases in the last few years highlighting the conflict between the law and personal autonomy to control one’s own death.

For Tom Curran, a founder of the Right To Die campaign in Ireland, the issue is one of deep personal significance. In 2013, following a landmark case in which Tom’s late wife, Marie, unsuccessfully challenged the above Act regarding assisted death, the topic came to high prominence in the Irish media. For Marie, it was a question of being allowed to choose when to end her life, when the time came, and with assistance if she was no longer able to do so by her own means. Since her death in December of that year, Curran has continued to be an active supporter of the right to control one’s death.

“The Right To Die movement is firstly a law reform movement advocating that the law should be changed regarding the control doctors currently have over patients.”

The Right to Die:

10433129_679449545508074_5945223742893385215_n“The Right To Die movement is firstly a law reform movement advocating that the law should be changed regarding the control doctors currently have over patients. It is the view that the people themselves should be in control; “For instance, if a person who is ill and facing a very difficult death simply gets to the point where they don’t want to tolerate their illness anymore, that the decision should be in their hands, not passed back to a doctor who decides “yes, this person qualifies.” The doctor controls everything, whereas I think this is a matter of autonomy and that the individual person should be in control. What we do is provide people with information so that people can make informed decisions and allow a person to have a peaceful end.

Although Tom’s personal experience relates to Marie’s physical illness, some countries such as Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland also allow for assisted death in the case of mental sickness. In the Belgian Euthanasia Act 2002/07 for example, it states that assisted suicide is legal in the case of “constant or incurable… mental suffering.” Curran is quick to assure that those suffering from mental issues are often quite rational, and believes there should be no distinction between mental and physical anguish.

“One way to put it would be ‘Is mental pain any less painful than physical pain?’ And to me, it’s not, once there is enduring pain which is going to continue and with very little prospect of being cured. To me, there is no difference, so why should it be excluded?”

“Who are we to determine what another person should be capable of tolerating? Do we have the right to say that their pain qualifies or is severe enough simply because we can see it or X-ray it? To me, it’s all about autonomy and the individual making a decision about their own life, and not having those decisions put in the hands of the medical profession.”

Curran does however admit that doctors must play some role in protecting the vulnerable in a way similar to the 3-doctor panel in Belgium. He also affirms that legalising assisted suicide would serve to reduce the number of “irrational suicides” in Ireland, if other options were available to prevent the “horrific ways in which people take their own lives today.”

The thought of assisted suicide is one that most people thankfully won’t have to contend with, and understandably not one that occurred to Curran until the later years of his wife’s life:“I had never thought much about it until Marie realised that her MS was taking complete control of her life. But she didn’t want a lingering, painful death. She wanted to have the choice to say ‘I want to go now and I want to go peacefully’.”

“It’s funny to talk about the right to die…we don’t just have a right to die, we have an obligation to. It’s the only thing we can be certain of!”

Dicing With Dr. Death:

Despite his experiences, there is also a more light-hearted approach to death from Curran. He has co-hosted the Dicing With Dr Death comedy show with Philip Nitschke, which talks about death and incorporates a ‘destiny machine’ emitting fatal doses of gas. Laughing, Curran feels, brings back a human element to death that has largely been forgotten.

“It’s as if people don’t want to know about [death], because they are afraid of what might happen afterwards. Death has become a medicalised process. But death is the most natural thing in the world, and there is no reason why people shouldn’t talk or laugh about it. Even the Hospice Foundation here in Ireland has something called ‘Think Ahead’ which encourages families to sit down and talk to each other with regards to what they want of their own death.”

At this point, Curran laughs himself: “It’s funny to talk about the right to die…we don’t just have a right to die, we have an obligation to. It’s the only thing we can be certain of!”

“Doing the show at Fringe Festival in Edinburgh [in 2015] gave us the opportunity to talk to people about assisted dying who we would never have been able to talk to otherwise. We introduced the whole concept of someone having the right to choose their own death to a completely different audience. That was the primary purpose of setting up the comedy show.”

Regarding any legislative progress on this issue, Curran isn’t optimistic. The capricious nature of the media to move onto the next story has also meant that any momentum on assisted suicide legislation has fizzled out since Marie’s death.

“I think there was great empathy and understanding when Marie was there, when she was a physical person, and one seen as very intelligent, rational, who knew what she wanted. Unfortunately, since her death it is something the legislators have put aside, because there is no figurehead – of course, there are many of us, like myself and Michael Nugent, who are campaigning for this – but it is no longer an issue that urgently needs to be dealt with. There will always be something more urgent, and I think that legislating process lost momentum when Marie died.”

“There is plenty of proof out there that for certain illnesses such as epilepsy, motor neuron disease, MS, as well as for pain management, it works very well as a medicine”

The Grass is Always Greener:

There is, however, another progressive medical issue in which Curran foresees a more realistic breakthrough. Last week, Health Minister Simon Harris announced a review of Ireland’s medical marijuana policy. This follows a Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill tabled by the People Before Profit in July last year, and the recent media interest in Vera Twomey, a Cork woman who has walked to Dublin in order to obtain a form of the drug for her six-year-old daughter Ava, who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy.

“I think there is certainly a greater chance of that happening relatively soon [than legalisation of assisted suicide]. For one, it is much easier to introduce. The controls and regulations are well tested in other areas of the world. Secondly, and unfortunately, we have a similar situation to Marie, with a lot of attention drawn by Vera Twomey and Ava. Again, it’s a case of if her needs are satisfied then the issue can be put aside. But I honestly believe that Simon Harris is interested in doing something about this because he knows the benefits. There is plenty of proof out there that for certain illnesses such as epilepsy, motor neuron disease, MS, as well as for pain management, it works very well as a medicine. And it can be legislated for purely as a medicine, leaving the recreational aspect aside.”

While medical marijuana may certainly be on the horizon, assisted suicide is a far more complex and sensitive issue. It isn’t clear when, if ever, legislation will be introduced to help people like Tom and Marie, but their work and the dedication of the Right To Die campaign will doubtless be instrumental in giving euthanasia in Ireland a fighting chance.