A grieving husband whose terminally-ill wife travelled to Belgium to avail of assisted dying just five months ago says he will do whatever it takes to ensure the right-to-die choice is made available here in Ireland.
Garret Ahern spoke to theabout the death of his wife Vicky Janssens last April ahead of the resumption next week of Oireachtas committee hearings on the issue. He hopes to tell his story to the committee within a few weeks.
“Our story is tragic. It’s heartbreaking,” Mr Ahern said.
“And the stress and the trauma that you have to endure traveling to Belgium, having the procedure carried out in Belgium and having to stay in Belgium for the funeral afterwards is not something that I would wish anyone to have to go through.
“I’m not doing this to seek publicity or the limelight. But if the legislation in this country can be changed to facilitate, under very strict conditions, the dignified ending of a person’s life, and the ending of their pain and suffering, I think it will have been worth it.”
Belgian-born, Cork-based UCC lecturer Vicky Janssens was a double mastectomy cancer survivor and five years cancer-free when she met Limerick man Garret Ahern online in 2018. The couple hit it off immediately but within a month, Vicky was told her cancer had returned. Despite treatment, the cancer spread.
The couple married in 2021 and tried to live life to the full but as the cancer progressed to her lungs, liver and stomach, she ultimately got a terminal diagnosis. Her pain increased and her quality of life deteriorated, Mr Ahern said.
She survived an overdose of pain medication at home in February 2023 but days later, she told Garret that she had made all the relevant medical and travel arrangements to avail of assisted dying in her native Belgium, where the right-to-die law was adopted in May 2002, and that it was going to happen with or without him.
“How could I here, at the final furlong, how can I abandon her now? How can I let her die without me being there to hold her hand. So of course I agreed to go,” he said.
He said he is aware that some people may view the introduction of assisted dying in certain conditions as a slippery slope that risks opening the door to a liberal form of euthanasia. But he insists the right legal, medical and ethical safeguards could be put in place to protect against an abuse of the system.
“We take death and we put it in a corner, and we ignore it,” he said. “But it should be as important a decision in our life as deciding whether or not to breathe air or whether or not to get married.
“We may not necessarily get married or have successful careers or be rich and famous. But we all will die. We should take ownership of death and give it the same dignity, gravitas and respect as any other important decision that we make.
“I am not in any way advocating that the elderly, people with disabilities, or people who do not wish to die in this manner, that they should be in any way coerced into this.
Suicide was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993 but the act of “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring” the suicide of another person remains illegal and carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The Joint Committee on Assisted Dying was established last January to consider and make recommendations for legislative and policy change related to a statutory right to assist a person to end his, her or their life and a statutory right to receive such assistance.
It is exploring how the provision for assisted dying might operate here, looking at safeguards relating to the provision for assisted dying, analysing the constitutional, legal and ethical issues relating to such a provision, and it also hopes to identify the possible unintended consequences of such a move.
It is open to the committee to recommend no change. The 14-member committee held its first private meeting in April 2023, two sessions in June and a final meeting in July before the summer break.
It has heard from several academics who are experts in medical ethics and the law, including consent, capacity, and end-of-life care, and the Constitution, where Articles 40.3.1 and 40.3.2 place an express and solemn duty on the State and its organs — legislative, executive, judicial — to protect the sanctity of all human life.
Its meetings are due to resume on September 26 with input from a range of experts from European jurisdictions where there is assisted dying, with the next set of modules focusing on the international experience of assisted dying, as well as on professional and ethical issues.
The committee is on track to report to both houses of the Oireachtas within nine months of its first public meeting.
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