Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

The Right to Die With Dignity – Is Ireland on the Brink of a New X Case?

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Ireland’s legislators have delayed taking action on the infamous X Case for more than twenty years.

In 1992 the State tried to prevent the parents of a raped suicidal pregnant 14 year old girl bringing their daughter to England for an abortion.

In 2011 the State prevented Bernadette Forde, who was suffering from a horrible disease – Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (PPMS) – that was getting worse all the time – from visiting the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland in order to end her own life.  The Gardaí intervened, threatening legal action against Bernadette and other people who might be helping her.

Shortly afterwards Bernadette took her own life in Ireland.

A file is now with the Director of Public prosecutions.

The 2011 General Election saw Ireland swinging to the left on such matters – Clare Daly TD, with the support of other Leinster House colleagues, took legislative “Action on X”, and this struggle will continue :

Similar establishment inertia surrounds the “Right to Die” issue, and Ireland could experience a political crisis similar to the X Case unless legislative action is taken.

Bernadette Forde’s story – “Forbidden to Leave”  was published in the Sunday Business Post on April 15 2012 :

Forbidden to leave

– by Susan Mitchell

On June 5, 2011, gardaí arrived at an apartment on Morehampton Road in Dublin 4. There, they found the body of Bernadette Forde, who had died some hours earlier. The Garda Síochána had prevented Forde and a friend from travelling to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, where she had planned to end her life two months earlier. Her death is still being investigated. The coroner gave the cause of death as barbiturate toxicity. This is her story, in the words of one of her closest friends, in conversation with Susan Mitchell.

Since last June, when Bernadette took her own life, her name has become synonymous with suicide in the Irish media.Anyone who has followed her story knows that she and a close friend were stopped from going to the Dignitas Cinic in Switzerland, where Bernadette had planned to end her life.

Subsequently, Bernadette ordered pills online. She spent the last few weeks before she died in an agitated state – petrified that the authorities would commit her to a care home and fearing what would happen to those closest to her when she ended her life at her apartment in Donnybrook.

Bernadette had no mental illness. She wasn’t elderly or delusional. There was only one reason why she wanted to end her life, and that was because she was sick – very sick.

As one of her closest friends, I feel she deserves to have her story told. If I could give my name, I would. But, as Bernadette ended her life here in Ireland and the whole affair is being investigated by the gardaí, I can’t. Not yet, anyhow.

Bernadette was lively, loving and kind. She was the best friend you could ever ask for. She travelled extensively. She loved a party. She was a fun person.
In 2000, she was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS). The symptoms of this horribly debilitating disease worsen over time.

Bernadette decided to retire soon after that. She was going to fight this disease as best she could, but she knew what was ahead of her. By 2004, she was using a walking stick, but she was still very independent. She travelled extensively, but she hated the illness and the stick.

In 2008, she had a bad car crash, after her leg went into a spasm while she was driving. She shattered her kneecaps and spent months in hospital. I think that, in some ways, it gave her a taste of what life would be like when her MS deteriorated. She was determined to walk again, but she never did.

As she realised she was losing the fight with her legs, a little part of her saw what was on the horizon a lot more clearly.

Dignitas in Switzerland was always in the background. Bernadette would mention it out of the blue. She had done a lot of research into it. Dignitas was always in her plan. She did not want to finish her days in a care home. She always made it clear that a care home was not an option for her. She just could not deal with the fact that she would be minded, wiped and washed by strangers.

Bernadette wasn’t afraid of death. She was very spiritual. She felt she had a choice in determining when she would leave this world, and that really comforted her. The last book she read before she died was There Are No Goodbyes by Paddy McMahon.

As time went by, the discomfort from her MS increased. The pain in her legs became excruciating. She became weaker and weaker.

Even in the midst of all her physical difficulties, we had so many laughs together. She had an electric wheelchair. She pinned more people against walls by mistake. She couldn’t gauge the speed of the chair very well!

She was an unbelievably positive person, but it got to her that she couldn’t do simple things like go to her favourite coffee shop in Donnybrook, or to M&S for lunch without help. Then, it got to the point where she couldn’t even get to those places when she had help.

Bernadette was desperately trying to hold on to her dignity, but it was slipping through her fingers – and quickly. She had a regular carer. They were best friends more than anything else. But, she couldn’t even look after her own personal care herself.

By the start of 2011, it was clear that she needed professional care. She was in constant chronic pain, and always fatigued.

Breathing had become difficult, and it was getting harder for her to swallow. She was getting close to the point of not being able to take her life herself.

Bernadette and her friend booked tickets to go to Dignitas for April 29. They stupidly told the travel agent their plans. They had no idea what they had planned was illegal here. I suppose they were very naive.

Her friend was arrested when she went to collect the tickets from the travel agent. Bernadette was due to travel three days later. She was ready and emotionally prepared. She had written letters to family and friends explaining why she was ending her life. She had prepared trinkets for those closest to her, and had boxed up all her belongings.

She wasn’t terrified of death. Rather, she was terrified that death wouldn’t work as she planned. She wanted to shed what she described as her tortured, torturous shell of a body. She felt she was being strangled by it. For Bernadette, death wasn’t an ending. It was a new beginning.

She never anticipated the furore over what she had planned, as it was legal in Switzerland.

Within a few days of being stopped by the gardaí, she purchased pills over the internet.

She became paranoid that she was being watched and under surveillance. She was worried she would be committed and would never get the chance to take the pills she ordered from Mexico.

But the pills eventually arrived. Bernadette sobbed with relief when they came. She felt in control again.

Bernadette was 51 when she ended her life. Nobody in their right mind wants to die, but terminal illness reduces your choices significantly.Should people not be allowed the the final comfort of being accompanied to their end by a loved one, without fear of anyone who was judged to have assisted them getting a criminal conviction.It is so unjust to have to end your own life alone (people are afraid to be present, in case they are accused of assisting the death). Why does the system take away whatever chance exists of a dignified end, after such an undignified journey from the initial diagnosis?

Why should Bernadette, and others who think the same, have to endure an indefinite number of years in a care home, if that is not what they want? In our society, dogs have more respect and dignity afforded to them when their bodies give up.Bernadette’s illness shortened her time considerably. Nobody should have to endure the obstacles that she encountered at the end of her life.She was one of the bravest women I have ever known. She bore her illness with incredible good grace and humour. What may seem to outsiders like the tale of a wobbly, unwell, insecure person who wants to end her life prematurely is not the real story.

This was the story of a woman who decided she had suffered enough and wanted to move on to a happier place. It was difficult for her family to understand her decision at first.But as they witnessed her deterioration and saw the strength of her conviction about what she had planned, the vast majority of them came to terms with the decision before she died.

Bernadette had a humanist service. It was beautiful. It was a celebration of her life, which she lived to the full for as long as she could. She had asked for the Eagles song Take It Easy to be played; it was one of her favourites.

We released balloons that day. One got stuck in a tree before floating off in the opposite direction to the other balloons. We all laughed at the irony of it. Bernadette always followed her own path.

It is time for Action on the Right to Die.

Written by tomasoflatharta

May 9, 2012 at 9:02 am

One Response

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  1. Good on you for telling Bernadette’s story. I can’t see why some people think they have the right to tell other people that they must live no matter what. My mother’s got terminal breast cancer and talks about suicide a lot, but there are no real options for her (though I think death will come soon enough anyway). This is a very moving story.


    May 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

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