While such wonderful developments are to be celebrated, it has made talking about issues around the inevitable end of our own and loved ones’ lives more difficult. But talk about it, we must.
This is particularly true about people who wish, because of seriously debilitating, terminal conditions, to end their own life but are unable to do so.
Campaigners for a new law to allow “safeguarded assisted dying” for “terminally ill, mentally competent adults” in Scotland are now planning to make a fresh push for it to be passed by MSPs after the next Holyrood election.
Alyson Thompson, of Dignity in Dying, claimed it was clear that “assisted dying is the next urgent rights-based reform for Scotland," saying that “huge injustices... have been perpetuated by an outdated, uncompassionate law that prohibits dying people from choosing the manner and timing of their own deaths”.
However, Dr Gordon Macdonald, of Care Not Killing, warned a change in the law would “remove universal protections and send out a message that the lives of the terminally ill and disabled people are less worthy of protection than others”, pointing to the recent discharge of elderly people from hospitals without adequate testing for Covid-19.
There are times when life presents us with the hardest of decisions, situations in which there is no good outcome and all we can do is choose the least-worst path. In times of war, the ‘mercy killing’ of fatally wounded soldiers with no chance of medical help can be a justified act of kindness.
It is extremely hard, some would say cruel, to tell a terminally ill person who is suffering and longs for the release of death that they cannot have it. So the principle of offering help to end the life to people in such a position is one we support.
However, if this law in enacted, no one should be in any doubt about the gravity of this step, the scope for abuse and the societal pressure it could place on vulnerable people.
In the early days of an assisted-dying law, it is probably unlikely that abuse of the law would happen, but attitudes may change over time; assisted suicide would become more common, more everyday, and there would almost certainly be people who, motivated by money or an unfeeling indifference towards those less fortunate than themselves, would act in ways that would profoundly shock us all. So rigorous safeguards would be vital.
Another serious question is whether medical and pharmaceutical staff, whose careers are centred on saving lives, can be reasonably required to participate in the ending of one if they do not want to. This seems like an area where staff should have a choice and, given the small number of such cases, there should be scope to allow this.
All lives are precious but all lives will end. We must strive to ensure every citizen has the best chance to live a happy, healthy and long life. But we should also show mercy to desperate individuals who are waiting for death in an utterly unbearable state and need our help to end it.