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In context: Assisted dying bill

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In context: Assisted dying bill

A new member’s bill which would legalise assisted dying is to be raised in the Scottish Parliament.

The proposals, brought forward by Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, aim to allow adults who are both terminally ill and mentally competent the choice of an assisted death. 

What is the background?

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a bill on this subject considered at Holyrood – in fact this would be the third time. 

The previous efforts to introduce assisted suicide were voted down at Holyrood in 2010 and 2015. In both instances, the bill fell following the stage one debate. A total of 16 members voted in favour in 2010 and 85 against, while in 2015 it was defeated by 82 votes to 36. 

Both bills were brought forward by independent MSP Margo MacDonald, with Patrick Harvie taking responsibility for the second set of proposals following her death in 2014 after her struggle with Parkinson’s disease. 

Who supports it?

On this occasion, Liam McArthur has brought forward the proposals. He believes the parliament needs to address an issue which has had, he says, “a longstanding lack of transparency, lack of clarity and indeed lack of compassion in the way that the law is framed”.  

A cross-party working group backing the legislation includes former Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, as well as Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. In an open letter, the MSPs said: “The law does not work and should be replaced with a safe and compassionate new law that gives dying people the rights they need to have a good death. It is incumbent upon us to provide a solution.”

The proposals have been supported by organisations such as the Humanist Society Scotland, Dignity in Dying Scotland and Friends at the End, who believe people at the end of their life should be listened to and have their choices respected. 

Additionally, a recent Panelbase poll published by the Sunday Times found that assisted dying is also backed by 72 per cent of voters in Scotland, with 14 per cent opposed and another 14 per cent unsure.

Who has concerns? 

Scottish Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy, her party’s spokeswoman for social justice and social security, has warned the plans would be “dangerous for disabled people”. 

The MSP, who is a wheelchair user, said she was “deeply worried” about the bill. She said: “Disabled people do not yet enjoy our right to live equally. I’d far rather we had a right to live enshrined in law, long before we have a right to die. Until all things are equal, this is dangerous for disabled people.” 

Duncan-Glancy added: “We need to make sure living is better for disabled people than death. That means properly funded care, accessible housing, equal access to healthcare and jobs and so on. My fear is that, bluntly, all of that costs more and the government haven’t committed nearly enough money to it.”

She is not alone in expressing concern about the proposals. Those who are against a change in the law believe it would undermine palliative care and risks putting pressure on vulnerable patients.

Commenting on the bill, Michael Veitch, a parliamentary officer at Care for Scotland, said: “This law will not just affect the small number of individuals who might choose to access assisted suicide. It will affect every person living with a terminal illness, fundamentally alter the doctor-patient relationship, devalue disabled people’s lives, and undermine wide efforts to prevent suicide.”

He claimed there could be “no adequate safeguards” and said providing a terminal prognosis is “fraught with uncertainty”.

Veitch said: “Vulnerable patients can be coerced. And the experience of other jurisdictions shows that an incremental extension of the law is inevitable.

“Sadly, this legislation comes after a renewed campaign driven by hyperbole, not by evidence and information. We hope that parliamentarians will be guided by the evidence in the forthcoming debate and opt to uphold current provisions.

“There are far better and more ethical ways to help patients at the end of life than allowing lethal drugs to be prescribed on the NHS.”

What stage is it at?

The bill will go out to consultation in the autumn and will come to a vote in the chamber next year. It will need the support of 65 MSPs to pass. 

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