Assisted dying is not the easiest topic to discuss, but with complex illnesses and an ageing population, now is the time to speak about the last taboo.
As a country, Scotland is improving end-of-life care. We have seen significant advances in this area, especially as we work towards the bold ambition to ensure everyone who needs palliative care has access to it by 2021 under the Strategic Framework for Action on Palliative and End of Life Care. This is welcome, but what about end-of-life choices?
We have seen countless examples over the years of people who have travelled to Switzerland for an assisted death. Following these cases, many people here in Scotland contact us at Friends at the End to simply talk through their choices but do not end up making the journey themselves. Being able to talk openly about their death is often palliative enough for most, but not all, people.
With people forced to go to such lengths, changing the law on assisted dying here in Scotland is something we need to address now more than ever. At Friends at the End, we believe we all should have a say in our own end-of-life decisions.
In 2014, statistics revealed that 68 per cent of Scots support assisted dying. Tragically, 300 people a year who are terminally ill are taking their own lives because we do not have assisted dying as a legal option. This means that often people are ending their lives afraid and alone. It costs around £10,000 to travel to Switzerland for an assisted death. If people cannot afford this option, or are not physically capable of travelling, they are resorting to other measures here in the UK.
In Scotland there is no legislation governing suicide or assisted suicide. We simply assume assisted dying is illegal based on statements from the Lord Advocate that he or she would regard assisting a death as deliberate killing, possibly leading to a charge of murder or culpable homicide. Yet a recent BSA survey showed 78 per cent of respondents believe doctors should be allowed to offer their patients an assisted death.
Our legal arguments differ substantially from England and Wales. England has statutory provisions, guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions and an abundance of case law. This helps to inform decisions and provides a framework for the judiciary, legislators, prosecutors and the general public to act within.
Our long-term aim at Friends at the End is to see a Members’ Bill introduced to the Scottish Parliament to allow Assisted Dying in Scotland. Assisted Dying is underpinned by a fundamental right for everyone who is of sound mind but is either terminally ill or incurably suffering, to gain the ability to have assistance to die at a time and manner of their choosing.
In England last week, Noel Conway, who is terminally ill, lost his High Court fight to end his life. It is shocking that in 2017 we still refuse to give people the right to a dignified death despite acknowledging that Noel will suffer, like thousands more, until his final days. We need to act now. I act as Secretary to the Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on End of Life Choices and Friends at the End have been involved with the preparation of two Bills to allow assisted dying in Scotland. The time is now to reform this area of law to work towards broadening end of life options and ensure a good death for all Scots.
Friends at the End meetings are open to all and are a starting point to open up discussions about the last taboo. Scotland’s future should be one where people are empowered to have the dignified death of their choosing.
Amanda Ward is CEO of Friends at the End, www.friends-at-the-end.org.uk