It is hugely dispiriting to learn that yet another attempt is to be made at Holyrood to change the law around assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide – or, as it is euphemistically termed ‘assisted dying’ – has been considered by the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament several times in recent years. In each instance, legislators have comprehensively rejected it as the risks associated with a change in the law are massive for society as a whole.
Legalising doctor-assisted suicide wound’t just affect patients who might choose to access it. It would impact on every person living with a terminal illness putting in their minds the suggestion that they can, and perhaps should, end their lives. In a context where NHS budgets are stretched, and lonely, forgotten about people die without love and support, this should be unthinkable.
Assisted suicide would fundamentally alter the doctor-patient relationship, sowing mistrust between vulnerable patients and the medics who are employed to treat them. It would devalue the lives of disabled people by sending the signal that some lives are not worth living. And it would undermine efforts to prevent suicide in wider society – a tragedy in every circumstance.
There can be no adequate safeguards in an assisted suicide law. Providing a terminal diagnosis is fraught with uncertainty. Vulnerable patients can be coerced and feel pressure to end their lives. And the experience of other jurisdictions shows that access to assisted suicide is quickly extended beyond terminal illness to include other conditions.
People in very difficult circumstances at the end of life deserve immense sympathy and all the support and help available. However, the situation is far more complex than campaigners make out. They fail to take account of advances in palliative care, ethical alternatives to doctor-assisted suicide, and dismiss empirical evidence of assisted suicide’s harms.
Last week, at an event in the UK Parliament, Professor of palliative medicine Katherine Sleeman criticised the approach of campaigners vying for a change in the law. She said: “I am deeply concerned that our societal conversation is being driven by hyperbole and fear not by evidence and information and it’s wrong and dangerous to frame this as a choice between suffering and suicide.”
It’s so important that MSPs approach this issue somewhat dispassionately, and carefully consider the evidence. MSPs must also seek out and listen to voices often excluded in this debate – those who are living with terminal illness, or who have lived through it with family members, who would not endorse this change in the law.
As we approach a new debate on this issue, the situation has not changed from previous attempts. Assisted suicide would be a dangerous and a retrograde step.
This article piblished in the Scottish Daily Mail on 21 June 2021