Danger that new law could lead to a greater uptake in assisted suicide - Louisa Ward

In September 2021 Liam McArthur MSP initiated a bill in the Scottish Parliament which would enable “competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with assistance to end their life”.

After a huge response to the public consultation, this bill is now being further considered and is expected to be proposed to the Scottish Parliament. Similar legislation has been passed in other parts of the world including Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada.

In Canada, “medical assistance in dying” (MAID) was introduced in June 2016 as an option for people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. This legislation was then amended in 2021 to remove the requirement that the individual’s death must be reasonably foreseeable in order to be eligible for assisted suicide. Since 2016, almost 14,000 people have accessed this service which enables them to end their lives.

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However, some groups may be more drawn to assisted suicide than others. Indeed, a young woman in Toronto is soon to get final approval for her request to access medically assisted death. Denise, 31, suffered a spinal cord injury six years ago and consequently uses a wheelchair. In addition, she has been diagnosed with a condition which can trigger “rashes and breathing difficulties”, as well as potentially causing full paralysis on one side of the body and difficulty in speaking and breathing.

Louisa Ward, Research Associate, Scottish Council on Human Bioethics
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After being unsuccessful in her search for an affordable apartment which would meet her needs, Denise submitted a request for “medically assisted death”, which was described as “surprisingly easier”. However, such an outcome is very concerning as it implies that access to assisted suicide is much more available, and more easily accessed, than affordable housing for people with disabilities.

This highlights the additional barriers faced by people on low incomes, which may make them more likely to resort to assisted suicide. Even when one of Denise’s doctors got involved, explaining that Denise needed an "immediate move for her safety”, they were still unable to find appropriate accommodation. It would appear that Denise felt her only option was to apply for medically assisted death. But this is deeply concerning because it suggests apathy on behalf of the government towards its disabled citizens as it is more accommodating to those who want to end their lives than those who do not.

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The debates in Canada are becoming ever more relevant in Scottish society due to the proposed bill to allow assisted suicide. Many in Scotland, while sympathetic to the suffering of others, are concerned about the introduction of this bill for a number of reasons. This is because, as discussed, some very sick and disabled people who are on low incomes may face additional barriers with regards to accessing medical care for illnesses and disabilities. As a result, they may be more likely to turn to assisted suicide as an escape. This could lead to a greater uptake in assisted suicide among people with low incomes, which may increase the divide among the socio-economic classes.

In addition, many are concerned that, with the introduction of assisted suicide, a danger may exist if society begins to view ill and disabled people as having less value and worth, who may themselves then feel that they are a burden on society. With the legalisation of assisted suicide, these feelings can quickly be turned into drastic and lasting actions.

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Therefore, the question to be asked is whether Scotland should follow Canada and become a society where ill and disabled people, especially those living close to the poverty line, are encouraged to turn to assisted suicide due to the way they and others perceive their quality of life.

Louisa Ward, Research Associate, Scottish Council on Human Bioethics

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