Catholic Church vows to block Margo MacDonald's end-of-life bill

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THE Catholic Church last night vowed to challenge in court any move to legalise assisted suicide, after veteran MSP Margo MacDonald launched her right-to-die bill. The Church has questioned the legality of the proposed law that could introduce suicide clinics to Scotland and see those as young as 16 given the right to decide to have their lives ended.

• Time to reflect: Margo MacDonald introduces the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. Picture: Jane Barlow

The End of Life Assistance Bill was published in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, after months of consultation.

But a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said the legislation "would cross a moral boundary that no society should ever breach".

He added: "It would completely invert and threaten the relationship between patient and doctor and undermine the role of medicine in society."

He argued the Human Rights Act would override MSPs' ability to pass the bill, raising the possibility of a legal challenge. "Ultimately, it is questionable whether the Scottish Parliament even has the power to legislate in this area," the spokesman said. "The European Convention on Human Rights recognises the right to life as inalienable, that is, it cannot be removed by any authority or relinquished by any person."

Ms MacDonald said: "The Church may want to challenge this in the courts, but what about the abortion law? That would seem to undermine their claim."

There is anger within the Catholic hierarchy that the bill has been allowed to proceed at all.

It has received a certificate of competency from Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson – that means it has been judged by parliamentary lawyers as legal for MSPs to vote it through as legislation.

The Catholic Church spokesman described Mr Fergusson's decision as "extremely concerning".

However, Ms MacDonald said she was confident the bill was competent for MSPs to pass. She has had help in drawing it up from a support unit for members' bills within the parliament.

She said: "It's absolutely appalling that people should have to leave their homes and their families and friends and everything that's familiar to them, and end their life in a foreign country in what has to be a relatively clinical atmosphere.

"Dying is part of living, it's the last act of your life, and if we accept the responsibility of how we live our lives, then I really fail to see where there is any demarcation of how we should die.

"This bill is meant to try and redress that unfairness, to give those people the autonomy to exercise some control over how they die, to give them the legal right to seek assistance and to protect the people that give assistance."

The independent Lothians MSP dismissed criticisms that the proposed new law threatened the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable, who might come under pressure to follow the route of assisted suicide.

She pointed out safeguards in the bill, including the need for the decision to be signed off by a GP, who must have received two separate requests, and for a psychiatric report to be received. The patient would also need to have been registered with a Scottish GP for 18 months.

The law would apply only to those with severe degenerative disorders or terminal diseases, and those whose lives had become unbearable through a severe, disabling accident. It would not apply to those with dementia, or to anyone unable to make a decision for themselves.

The bill has come as a direct result of debate across the UK over whether assisted suicide should be allowed.

The campaigner Diane Pretty won a case at the High Court in London, forcing the Director of Public Prosecutions to spell out the circumstances under which he would take somebody to court for assisting suicide.

There was also the case of the Daniel James, 23, whose parents escaped prosecution after taking him to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland after he was paralysed in a rugby accident.

Ms MacDonald has said she wants the chance to be helped to end her life should her Parkinson's disease make life unbearable.

However, she insisted the bill was "not personal".

She said she doubted whether Scotland would become the new Switzerland, but added: "If folk can get a dignified death in Scotland, then they are welcome as far as I am concerned."

She was unsure how many would choose to end their lives if the law changed, but said figures showed 50 or 60 a year made that choice in Scotland.

Sheila Duffy, from the Friends at the End campaign group, which backs the bill, said there would not be queues of people wanting help to die.

She said experience in Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US state of Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, showed this was not the case.

Doubts have been raised over public support for assisted suicide, which supporters say is moving in their direction.

But Dr Calum MacKellar, director of research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, said an analysis of the figures revealed that support dropped dramatically when people were given the full facts.

At Holyrood, all parties will allow a free vote on the bill, with all ministers also able to vote with their consciences, although First Minister Alex Salmond has said he is not persuaded.

Ms McDonald said she was more confident of support and of getting the bill passed than she had been previously.

But many of the 25 MSPs who signed up to support the bill said they had done so mainly so that a debate could take place.

Many of them said they were not convinced about legalising assisted suicide, but felt that the issue should be considered in parliament.

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Assisted suicide and the proposed rules

SUICIDE is not illegal in Scotland. The End of Life Assistance Bill would legalise helping somebody die who is incapable of taking their own life and could lead to euthanasia clinics being set up in Scotland. The rules would be:

&#149 The minimum age for somebody to decide they wanted their life to be ended by somebody else would be 16.

&#149 Life could be ended by a doctor or friend but not a relative.

&#149 The person performing the act will have to be judged as appropriate to do so by the medical practitioner.

&#149 The patient would need to be registered for 18 months with a Scottish GP.

&#149 The patient would need to have a degenerative or severe condition that made life unbearable, or a terminal illness.

&#149 Life could only be ended after a GP had signed off the decision and a report had been given by a psychiatrist.

&#149 Two separate requests would have had to have been made to the doctor.

&#149 It would not apply to those with dementia or those unable to decide for themselves.

Is MacDonald right? Two campaigners have their say

YES - Jo Cartwright

MARGO MacDonald's End of Life Assistance Bill provides an important opportunity for a much-needed debate on assisted dying in Scotland. This issue is not one which is going to go away, and the sooner the parliament acknowledges that there is a problem, and between us we find a suitable solution, the better.

People undoubtedly want choice and control at the end of life. That is why this issue is so often in the media. Without a safeguarded law regulating choice over how and when we die, many people will continue to take matters into their own hands. At the moment, people travel abroad to die, there are "mercy killings" and people attempt suicides behind closed doors. Margo MacDonald must be commended for reigniting this debate in Scotland, and for seeking a compassionate way forward which would add safeguards to an area which is largely unregulated.

As well as tragic cases of people having to take desperate measures to have some control over the time and manner of their deaths, there is a clear appetite for change within the Scottish public. A 2009 STV poll found that 75 per cent of Scottish people felt that they should have the right to choose when they die, and 78 per cent felt that loved ones should not be prosecuted for helping loved ones to die.

Dignity in Dying campaigns for a law to allow the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults only. This bill goes further and suggests the choice of assisted dying also for those who are physically incapacitated and suffering intolerably. While we understand the motivation for this change, we don't support it. We are, however, very pleased to see safeguards in the bill around mental capacity and multiple doctor involvement.

&#149 Jo Cartwright is campaigns director for Dignity in Dying.

NO - Peter Saunders

WHAT immediately struck me about the bill is its coyness. It doesn't spell what sort of "end-of-life assistance" a "designated practitioner" may provide. Is it assisted suicide (where the person takes prescribed lethal drugs) or euthanasia (where the doctor gives a lethal injection)? The vague wording actually covers both.

The bill is full of detail about the bureaucracy – who can and cannot be a witness, how many days must elapse between successive requests and what constitutes "a positive report" from a psychiatrist. But on the crucial issue of how the deed is to be done, we are simply told that "the requesting person and the designated practitioner must agree on the means by which assistance is to be provided". Are we to infer that any means at all are acceptable? Surely not. Scotland's Parliament and people are entitled to know exactly what is intended here. This is far too serious a matter for euphemisms.

We have here a bill that is very similar, not to the Oregon assisted suicide law that is so much in favour with the euthanasiasts in England, but to the more virulent Dutch model. Ms MacDonald claims that her bill would lead to no more than 50 deaths a year in Scotland. Dutch experience suggests that the number could be as many as 1,500.

The catchment area for Ms MacDonald's bill is very wide, comprising as it does anyone who is not just terminally ill, but "permanently physically incapacitated to such an extent as not to be able to live independently". What sort of message does this send to disabled people and to others dependent on friends or relatives? It says: "If you cannot live without help, you are a candidate for having your life ended." Ms MacDonald may be well-intentioned, but this bill is simply too dangerous.

&#149 Peter Saunders is director of Care Not Killing Alliance.

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