Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill: Is Holyrood up to properly scrutinising a Bill that could have serious unintended consequences? – Murdo Fraser

In Canada, concern is growing over the high number of medically assisted deaths – now the country’s fifth-highest recorded cause of death

In an interview with this paper last week, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said that he is confident of getting sufficient support for his proposed Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill for it to pass stage one in the Scottish Parliament. He is an experienced MSP who knows how to build alliances and maximise support within the Scottish Parliament, and is backed by the well-funded campaign group, Dignity in Dying. High-profile celebrities like Esther Rantzen and Prue Leith have lent their voices to the cause.

Liam McArthur has been seeking support for the principles of his Bill without giving too many details as to what the proposed legislation will contain. Ultimately MSPs will be asked to vote on detailed provisions which will have an impact on all Scots and not just on the small group of vocal advocates for assisted suicide.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I have had many communications from, and discussions with, constituents who are passionate about a change in the law. Invariably these are intelligent, well-informed individuals who have had agency in every aspect of their lives, and understandably want to exercise as much control at the end as they have throughout their years on this Earth.

Impossible to draft safe law

But MSPs cannot just legislate for this group; any law passed will apply equally to the elderly, the weak and the vulnerable as it will to the strong and self-willed. This leaves many of my MSP colleagues undecided, and, whilst willing to indicate support in principle, with reservations about what any legislation will mean in practice.

The high costs of social care, lack of access to specialist palliative care, family pressure, financial worries, abuse and coercion are all risks of which to be aware. Experiences in Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere show that it is impossible to draft a safe law which can guarantee that vulnerable people won’t be put at risk.

Just a few weeks ago, I met a group of Canadian MPs who were visiting Scotland, who were adamant in their view that the legalisation of assisted suicide there had been a disaster. Many of the safeguards put in place at the time their Bill was passed have been dismantled over time, with the consequence that medically assisted dying is now the fifth-highest recorded cause of death in Canada.

For those who say confidently that the same wouldn’t happen here, I would simply ask if they seriously expect Dignity in Dying – which until 2006 was known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society before its Centrica-style rebrand – to shut up shop if a Bill is passed here? We would simply be on a conveyor belt to extending the categories of those eligible for an assisted death.

Clever tactics

All this may explain why, despite lodging his proposal over two years ago, Liam McArthur has still not published a draft of his Bill. It does the Scottish Parliament no favours to operate like some student debating society; discussing principles without due diligence being given to the potential adverse consequences on the lives of ordinary people and the complications of administering new idealistic laws by an imperfect, inefficient and often overloaded public sector.

The lack of detail has not stopped some of my colleagues from signing up to support a Bill in principle. That does not inspire confidence in the level of scrutiny the Bill is likely to receive at stage one. It is a clever tactic to ask people to indicate support for a Bill they haven’t seen in the hope of committing them to vote for it, regardless of how flawed it is when the time comes.

The opposition of the First Minister, the Health Secretary and the Equalities Minister to the Bill is well informed, as they are clearly aware that those who are most vulnerable will be under pressure to end their lives prematurely if assisted dying ends up on the statute book, as we have seen elsewhere. The current pressures on the NHS, palliative care and social care, with funding not even keeping pace with inflation, reveal how dangerous it will be to introduce a system of assisted suicide. It could quickly come to be seen as the cheap alternative to providing proper care.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Horrific, unintended consequences

It remains to be seen whether or not the personal opposition of senior Scottish Government ministers will facilitate rigorous scrutiny of Liam McArthur’s Bill by the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood does not have a great track record in scrutinising controversial legislation. The named-person scheme, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and the legislation introducing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child have all been found wanting in the courts. Can we expect a similar result in relation to an assisted suicide Bill? Quite possibly, if it strays into reserved matters or impinges on the human rights of healthcare staff or others.

Arguably, a stand-alone committee should be established to scrutinise the Bill, as happened with the late Margo Macdonald’s first attempt to change the law on assisted dying in 2010. That committee should follow the example of the Health and Social Care Committee at Westminster which has spent 12 months considering evidence from expert witnesses on the subject of assisted suicide/dying. Certainly, given the sensitivities around the issue and the potential for horrific, unintended consequences we should not rush the process by cramming all the stage-one evidence-taking into the usual six-to-eight weeks’ time frame.

I have argued in this column before for a wider reform of Holyrood procedures to allow better scrutiny of legislation, in particular for some revising mechanism beyond the current stage three. That is unlikely to happen before this Bill is introduced, but it increases the onus on MSPs from all sides on this most sensitive of debates to ensure that changing the law in this area is not something that is rushed into.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.