Assisted Dying Bill: The right to a good death is perhaps the most basic human right of all – Susan Dalgety

Is there a such a thing as a good death? All of us, in our most private of moments, hope there is. That when our time comes, as it will, we will simply close our eyes and slip away peacefully into whatever we believe comes after this life.

Activists from the Campaign for Dignity in Dying protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA)
Activists from the Campaign for Dignity in Dying protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

But for many people death will come not easily. It will be preceded by months, perhaps years, of incurable ill health, chronic pain and fear, before ending, not with a few well-chosen words that our family will immortalise, but in terror.

Some of us will die not knowing who we were, our personalities destroyed by dementia. Many of us will die in hospital, separated from everything we hold dear. I have sat beside frail family members, their bodies destroyed by cancer, as they died in a busy ward, their only privacy a flimsy curtain, dying while life goes on around them.

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And I watched my father, the same age as I am now, struggle to breathe as the COPD that had destroyed his lungs was hellbent on destroying even his most basic quality of life. Every waking moment was cruel, and the uneasy sleep he fell into every night brought little relief from the nightmare.

Even talking about death is considered taboo. We reassure the terminally ill that if they fight hard enough they will beat the disease that has ravaged their body, knowing full well it will kill them in a few weeks’ time.

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We lock our elderly in care homes when their mind fails, with just enough clinical care to stop them from dying, while ignoring their whimpers of anguish as they disappear from view.

We rush to the vets with our beloved family pets when death beckons, begging for them to be put out of their misery as we cannot bear to watch them suffer. Yet helping our dearest friend die with dignity, and in peace, has been, until now, considered the last taboo.

The much-respected MSP for Orkney, Liam McArthur, may be about to change all that. On Monday he introduced a private member’s bill on assisted dying, which if passed would allow people who have lived in Scotland for at least a year to access medication to take their own lives if two doctors are satisfied that they have met safeguards.

Mr McArthur has cross-party support for his bill, which will be the subject of a national debate over the next two years before being voted on at Holyrood, and he is confident that it contains “strong safeguards that put transparency, protection and compassion at its core”.

And he insists the current rules cause needless suffering for many dying people and their families across Scotland. He said: “If you have reached the limits of palliative care and face a bad death, none of the current options available to you in Scotland represents an acceptable alternative to a peaceful, dignified death at home.”

His proposal has already attracted support from a wide range of society, including pressure groups like Dignity in Dying Scotland and Sir Richard Thompson, the Queen’s private doctor for 21 years and a former president of the Royal College of Physicians.

It has also been greeted with considerable opposition. Newly elected MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy, the first parliamentarian to be a permanent wheelchair user, tweeted her concerns this week, saying she was deeply worried about the Bill.

“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.”

And many doctors quote their Hippocratic Oath – “first, do no harm” – as the reason why they oppose the move. In response to Duncan-Glancy, Shetlands GP Susan Bowie said: “I’m a GP who likes to ensure the best of palliative care. 42 years of practice as a doctor has never convinced me that ‘assisted dying’ is right for anyone.”

And some people’s experience of the use of DNR (do not resuscitate) agreements during the Covid pandemic has convinced them that some in the medical profession would be cavalier with people’s lives if there was a change in the law.

I agree wholeheartedly with Pam Duncan-Glancy when she argues that we must make sure that living is better for disabled people than death, and that everyone is entitled to properly funded social support and access to the best possible health care.

But I don’t believe that helping people die with dignity is incompatible with that aspiration. Quite the opposite. A good society should do both.

One of the most life-enhancing people I have had the privilege to know was Margo MacDonald, one of Scotland’s best-known and widely loved politicians. She was bigger than any political party, the life and soul of every gathering.

Margo embraced life with joy and vigour. Even as Parkinson’s disease invaded her body, she continued to work and play as hard as ever. And she tried and failed twice to get an assisted dying bill through the Scottish Parliament.

Writing in the preface to the consultation of her second bill, she acknowledged that for some people, their faith or credo forbid them from supporting the principle of assisted death.

“Although I take a different point of view I absolutely defend their right to refuse to actively participate in the processes of assisted suicide,” she wrote.

“Equally, I defend the right of a person, facing death imminently or for whom life has become intolerable, as a result of their condition, to seek help to end their life at a time of their own choosing.”

That is all many people want. The right to bring their life to a peaceful close, in their own time, in a place where they feel comfortable. Perhaps the most basic human right of all – the right to die a good death.

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