Vicky Phelan rejects claim that dying with dignity bill threatens palliative care

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Vicky Phelan Photo: Oisin McHugh True Media

LIMERICK CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan, has said a proposed Bill seeking to allow terminally ill people, like herself, have the choice of ending their own lives, is not a threat to palliative care.

Ms Phelan, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, arising out of the CervicalCheck scandal, commented after 17 eminent palliative consultant physicians and professors said they were “gravely concerned” at the proposed Bill, which will be voted on in the Dail tomorrow, Wednesday.

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Ms Phelan said the proposed Bill would “ease” a “huge fear” that she and others have about dying in pain, and in a place they do not wish to end their days, such as “a hospital or a hospice”.

The “Dying with Dignity” Bill was introduced in the Dail by Solidarity-People for Profit TD Gino Kenny.

Calling on TDs to support the Bill, Ms Phelan revealed she suffers “nightmares” about dying and having no control over how, where, and when her final moment will be.

“When anybody gets to a (terminal) stage, like I am, you’re terrified. I have nightmares about this, it’s something that plays on your mind constantly, you know you are going to die,” she said.

“There’s a big difference in somebody dying of a heart attack, and my situation. If you die of a heart attack, you don’t know it’s coming, you’re dead, that’s it, you don’t have time to think about it. Whereas I have had two and half years to think about this, and I have got young children, so it’s a very real fear for people when they’re in the situation with an illness where they know they’re going to die, probably in a lot of pain.”

“I am (terrified), yes, why wouldn’t I be? I am only human, and unfortunately I have seen quite a number of people die, particularly over the last two and half years, and I’ve visited quiet a number of hospitals and hospices.”

A group of consultant physicians and clinical professors in palliative medicine voiced strong opposition to the proposed Bill in a letter sent to The Irish Times Monday.

The letter’s signatories, led by Feargal Twomey, a Limerick consultant physician in palliative medicine and chair of the Irish Palliative Medicine Consultant’s Association Palliative Medicine (IPMCA), stated they were “gravely concerned by any proposal to legislate for assisted suicide and euthanasia in Ireland”.

Ms Phelan, who is supporting the Bill, said: “I thought it was telling that they used ‘assisted suicide’ rather than ‘assisted dying’, because ‘assisted dying’ is what this Bill is proposing. Assisted suicide or euthanasia is far more broad, which is not what this Bill is proposing whatsoever”.

The physicians argued they have “a collective experience over many decades of providing specialist care to thousands of individuals, and their families” and “closely observed the experiences of people who have lived and are living with serious illness”.

However, Ms Phelan said: “How can they have grave concerns if they haven’t got feedback or tested the waters or consulted with a group of patents? This is all about their views on dying, not about patients views or what patients fears are.”

The physicians claimed the proposed Bill posed “many threats, to healthcare in Ireland”, including the “true meaning of the doctor-patient relationship” and “the future of what we know compassionate and supportive specialist palliative care”.

Ms Phelan said palliative care professionals do “fantastic” work and she argued the proposed Bill should “not” be seen as a “Us versus Them”.

“It’s about giving people like me the choice. I have made all of my choices in my life about everything I’ve done, between getting married, having babies, and then obviously the more difficult thing about taking a court case, so why should this be any different – why should I not have that little bit of control over how I die, the same way I’ll have had control over how I’ve lived my life.”

Ms Phelan and Deputy Kenny both said “patients voices” must be heard.

They both disagreed that “dying with dignity is already present within healthcare in Ireland, no change to our current laws is required” as stated by the physicians.

The IPMCA group expressed “worry about the impact” the proposed Bill would have on vulnerable people as well as “those who may be made to feel a burden to their families and come under pressure to end their lives prematurely”.

Mr Kenny said the proposed Bill included safeguards to prevent abuse.

“I don’t think they speak for every person that works in palliative care, I’m sure there is a variety of opinions in relation to the issue,” Mr Kenny said.

“We are going to have to tackle this issue rather than sticking our heads in the sand,” he added.

A vote on whether the proposed Bill will progress to committee stage or be subject to further scrutiny by an Oireachtas committee is due to take place Wednesday.