Death is not something we like to talk about. It remains a taboo subject in polite company and is not something politicians prefer to spend their time debating.
There is, however, a cross party group in the Scottish Parliament which spends most of its time talking and thinking about death. Officially the aim of the group is to “discuss and raise awareness of issues around assisted dying and end of life choices”.
The term assisted dying is used as a euphemism for assisted suicide and euthanasia. The not so hidden objective of the group is to promote the legalisation of assisted suicide at the earliest opportunity with the possibility of the law being extended to include euthanasia at a later date. In fact, assistance in dying occurs every day in hospices and hospitals up and down the country where effective palliative care is given to those who are dying to ease their suffering. Assisted suicide on the other hand is action aimed at intentionally helping another person’s life to come to an end and euthanasia is to directly and intentionally kill the person.
MSPs are of course at liberty to seek to advance any cause they support. However, there are many reasons why we should not legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia.
In any country where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalised, vulnerable people are at risk of coming under pressure to end their lives prematurely. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable. People don’t want to be a burden on family, friends or health services. This fear of being a burden means the right to die becomes a duty to die.
Meanwhile, people with disabilities may fear that their doctors will make treatment decisions on the basis of subjective value judgements about quality of life. Incrementally, the scope of the law is extended to include new categories of people.
It spreads from the terminally ill to the chronically ill, from adults to children, from those with physical illness to those with mental illness, to disabled people and to those who are just tired of life.
Introducing assisted suicide also means a radical change occurs in medical thinking where ending the life of patients becomes a normal treatment option.
In the Netherlands, there are many cases where incapacitated patients have been euthanised without giving explicit consent. Disabled, newborn babies with spina bifida have been killed under the Groningen Protocol.
In Belgium, since 2014 the euthanasia law has been extended to include children aged under 12. Year on year increases occur in the number of deaths by assisted suicide and euthanasia.
In Switzerland in 1998, only 48 people committed assisted suicide. By this year the number will be well over 1,000. In the US state of Oregon, deaths by assisted suicide have increased by 900 per cent since 1998. In addition, deaths resulting from terminal deep sedation, where patients are sedated, starved and dehydrated for a considerable period of time before death, can become worryingly high. Around 12 per cent of all deaths in the Netherlands occur by this method with an additional 4 per cent as a result of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Ultimately we need to recognise that calls for legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia are driven by a fear of death and the aim of avoiding physical or emotional suffering. What people want is control. Time and again assisted suicide campaigners will come back to the ‘autonomy’ argument.
Kevin Yuill, writing recently for the Economist, opposes the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia arguing that the autonomy argument is a red herring. This is because it is not so much the patient who is in control, but the doctor. His wider point is that you can be an atheist and still not support the legalisation of assisted suicide.
Of course, there are also good Christian grounds for opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Not least is the belief that human life is intrinsically valuable, independent of your circumstances. That is why it is wrong to kill people.
Moreover, in Christian thought, death is seen as an enemy which is only overcome through faith in the resurrected Christ.
The life-changing consequences of believing in Jesus means that a Christian’s entire relationship to death changes.
Hope is central to the Christian’s life. This hope of something greater to come after death helps counter the understandable fear we naturally experience when contemplating the end of our lives.
Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer at CARE for Scotland. www.care.org.uk