Assisted suicide is at odds with Western Christian tradition of human rights – Murdo Fraser MSP

In his book, Dominion: The making of the Western mind, the historian Tom Holland makes the case that what we now take to be universal human rights, such as a belief in equality and the essential value of human life, derive from Christianity, and in particular the writings of St Paul.

Nicki Kenward (left) and Elspeth Chowdharay, of campaign group Distant Voices, protest against assisted suicide outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

The pre-Christian, ancient world held no such views. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the lives of the poor, the vulnerable, and of conquered peoples, had no intrinsic value, but were only there to be used – and abused – by the powerful.

Simply, writes Holland, the ancients were cruel, and their values utterly foreign to him. The Spartans routinely murdered ‘imperfect’ children. The bodies of slaves were treated like outlets for the physical pleasure of those with power. Infanticide was common. The poor and weak had no rights. It was only with the coming of Christianity that attitudes would change, with a belief that all human lives were valuable.

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In similar fashion, in much of the ancient world suicide was considered to be a heroic act. A Roman who faced dishonour might be expected to take his own life, as did Cato the Younger, after a defeat at the battle of Thapsus (by clawing out his own entrails), whilst the assassins of Julius Caesar fell on their swords after being beaten at Philippi. Indeed, early Roman law actually protected the estates of suicides who were accused of capital crimes and killed themselves prior to trial.

In the Christian era, the view came to be adopted that suicide was to be deplored, with the Church in the Middle Ages excommunicating attempted suicides, and requiring the burial of those who were successful on unconsecrated soil.

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It is against this historical backdrop that we now see a fresh attempt in the Scottish Parliament, the third in recent years, to legalise assisted suicide, or “assisted dying” as it has now been rebranded – presumably on the basis that we regard growing suicide rates as a horrendous social ill, and it would confuse public health messaging on the issue were Parliament to be seen legislate to enable suicide in particular circumstances.

Those campaigning for a change in the law present assisted suicide as a progressive cause, the next great liberal reform in extending individual autonomy. If we have control over so many aspects of our lives, the argument goes, why should we not be able to control the manner of our dying, and legally seek assistance to end it as we wish?

But set against the sweep of human history, legislating for assisted suicide is not a step forward, but a return back to the pre-Christian era, and a darker time in the past, when human life was not valued as it is today.

The campaign group Dignity in Dying which pushes for reform was formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, changing its name in 2005. Its founder was Dr Charles Killick Millard, a supporter of eugenics – once considered to be a respectable science, but one which fell rapidly into disrepute following the Nazi horrors of the 1930s and 40s. Today we are – rightly – repelled by the notion that the human race can be ‘improved’ by eliminating the weak, sick, or disabled.

Given this background, it is not surprising that there is so much concern about where a change to legalising assisted suicide might lead. Much opposition to changing the law in this area has been led by campaigners for the rights of the disabled.

Their worry is that if the principle is accepted that some lives are regarded as less valued than others, to the extent that they are not even worth living, what does that mean for the human rights of those who are seriously disabled?

Whatever safeguards are put in law, assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses is only the first step for those who wish to see euthanasia legalised more generally, as indeed has been the case in other jurisdictions.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for those with a terminal illness facing suffering and uncertainty, wanting to have the choice to end their lives at the time and in the manner of their choosing.

It is ghastly that people in that position have no alternative but to travel to Switzerland – if they are able – to exercise that choice. But, as the old adage puts it, “hard cases make bad law”.

It is the wider consequences of changing the current law that legislators must consider, not least the concern that pressure would be applied, directly or indirectly, on the elderly and vulnerable who do not wish to become a burden on their families, particularly when the costs of care are so high.

All these issues were considered recently by members of the Irish Parliament’s Committee on Justice, in scrutinising a Private Member’s Bill brought forward by Gino Kenny TD which would have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia for any Irish citizen over 18 who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In a report published last week, the committee rejected the Bill, arguing that it was seriously flawed and should not proceed further. As well as opposition from disability groups, concern was raised by the medical profession in Ireland that the Bill was open to significant misuse and abuse. In due course, a committee of the Scottish Parliament will have to wrestle with the same issues.

What those on all sides of this debate can agree on is that everyone should have the right to die with dignity. A campaign to provide improved, better funded, palliative care is something that would unite the entire country, and be a truly progressive move. That is something we could all get behind, rather than turning back the clock to the ethics of a distant past.

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

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