Whatever colour the next parliament in Scotland is, it is certain that some of the debates of recent years will continue to rage on. One such debate is whether MSPs should legalise ‘assisted suicide’, or as it is more euphemistically termed ‘assisted dying’ and allow people diagnosed with a terminal illness to end their lives. There have been two attempts to change the law in Scotland previously, both of which were rejected by a large margin.
The campaign for assisted suicide in Scotland has been gathering momentum over the last few months. Dignity in Dying, formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, has recruited high profile figures such as TV personality Prue Leith to front its campaigns. Leith spoke at a recent event hosted by the group where she called for election candidates to support a Bill in the next parliamentary session.
Leith is personally invested in the issue. Her brother David fought a tragic battle with bone cancer, a particularly rare and painful form of the disease. She argues that people like David should be able to end their lives and escape their suffering. And she criticises the fact that not many people can afford to make the expensive trip overseas to assisted suicide clinics in Europe.
The courts in the UK have debated this issue in recent years and, by and large, the families of individuals who travel abroad to end their lives will not face prosecution. The law as it stands strikes an appropriate balance between upholding UK legislation on suicide, which should be treated as a tragedy in every instance and extending compassion to the grieving families of those who access assisted suicide abroad.
Many in Scotland will be sympathetic to Prue Leith’s experience. It is a terrible thing to see a loved one in the throes of terminal illness, racked with pain and losing hope. However, legislating for ‘assisted dying’ is not straightforward. It raises deep ethical questions to do with the status and value of vulnerable and terminally ill people, as well as wider questions about the kind of society we want to live in. There are several important arguments against changing the law.
The first and most obvious argument is this: how can safeguards be put in place to ensure that an assisted suicide law will be limited in its scope and never abused? One unjust or improper death would be a colossal tragedy. The evidence from abroad paints a sinister picture. Laws passed to allow limited groups of people to access an ‘assisted death’ are extended incrementally to include those with non-terminal conditions, the disabled, the mentally ill and even children.
There is evidence of vulnerable elderly and disabled people feeling pressured to end their lives for fear of becoming a burden, financial or otherwise, to their families. And there is the crude implication by some members of the medical establishment that assisted dying is good for the taxpayer. A dose of barbiturates costs very little, whilst end-of-life care costs millions. How could legislators make the case for long-lasting and complex end-of-life health care when the pandora’s box of assisted dying is opened?
Doctors in Scotland would also face new, unprecedented moral quandaries. A law to allow the taking of patients’ lives seems in many ways at odds with the Hippocratic Oath doctors are taught to embody in their profession.
The assumption that patients should have a right to die would impose upon doctors a duty to kill, thus restricting the autonomy of the doctor. In other jurisdictions, doctors have come under increasing pressure to participate in assisted suicide even if they have a conscientious objection to doing so.
Putting these serious dangers aside for a moment, there is another reason not to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill and it has been alluded to by Prue Leith herself. This month, she told journalists: “I think we need to have much better palliative care because not everyone wants to take their own life.” This is an important point. Access to palliative care in the NHS is sorely lacking. And palliative care doctors would tell you that there is practically no condition in later life that cannot be treated effectively through a quality end-of-life care plan.
During these last months of coronavirus, the dignity of protecting and safeguarding the vulnerable and elderly in society has come to the fore. We have phenomenal healthcare professionals in the UK and the right infrastructure to see the elderly, the infirm and the terminally ill supported at the end of life. Why pursue assisted suicide when we can double down on good end-of-life care and carry forward the spirit of support engendered in the coronavirus pandemic?
We should not venture down the dark and foreboding path of assisted suicide when health care is not as good as it could be at present. Tragic cases like that of Prue Leith’s brother, David, could become a thing of the past if legislators were to give healthcare providers the resources, they need to ensure a pain-free and dignified death for all our citizens.
In this election and in the coming months, this is the challenge that MSPs should be setting themselves: world-leading end-of-life care which values and protects life. Not state-sanctioned suicide that gives up on the vulnerable.