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Thursday 29 September 2016

Terry Prone: A tragic but triumphant case that asks questions of our suicide laws

analysis

Gail O'Rorke at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court
Gail O'Rorke at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court

It's not often that the acquittal of an accused makes so many uninvolved people feel quietly content, but that's what happened in this case.

The woman who had been accused, who had walked into court every day with silent dignity, wept when the jury's verdict was read out.

Many other people in the court cheered and hugged each other. She wept.

Her friend Bernadette Forde had suffered from multiple sclerosis. The condition eroded her personal freedoms and destroyed her privacy. She came to depend on a friend to take care of getting her clean, dressed and ready for the day. She considered herself lucky in many ways.

The carer became a friend who managed those personal invasions with strength, humour and delicacy. But as MS continued its relentless progress, Bernadette Forde looked at her life and decided it was a life she no longer wished to live.

She first chose to go to Dignitas, the Swiss clinic where chosen suicide is facilitated.

complicit

That was stymied by An Garda Siochana, alerted by a travel agent worried that they might be found complicit in her suicide. It's not illegal to commit suicide. It is, however, a criminal offence to assist or attempt to assist the quite legal suicide of another. It's perfectly okay for an able-bodied person to take an overdose or to travel to Dignitas.

But if a person is disabled, unable to walk, unable to get to a flight, then the right to commit suicide is effectively withdrawn.

They still have it, in theory. In practice, they don't.

Bernadette Forde was a clever woman who did not want her death to endanger any of her friends, and so she went to considerable lengths to claim her suicide as undertaken by herself and herself alone.

The solicitor who dealt with her about her will regarded her as completely cogent and believed she was not under the influence of any third party.

But the mills of a bad law grind slowly, and they came close to grinding Gail O'Rorke exceeding small.

The gardai, alerted to the Dignitas possibility, had no choice but to step in and, having stepped in, to keep watch. The end result was that Bernadette's death put her friend and carer straight into the jaws of the judicial system.

In the event, the jury came through for Gail O'Rorke and for her dead friend. In the process, and because we got to learn the details, they set our legislators a task: the framing of a law that neither robs a person who wishes to die of their right to do so, just because they are disabled, nor criminalises those who love them if they try to go along with those wishes.

This has been a tragic but ultimately triumphant case.

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