Legalising assisted suicide is the start of a slippery slope – Dr Gordon Macdonald

Campaigners against the introduction of assisted suicide laws fear that they can quickly expand.  Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Campaigners against the introduction of assisted suicide laws fear that they can quickly expand. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
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A new campaign has been launched in the ­Scottish Parliament by a ­cross-party group of MSPs to ­legalise assisted suicide. They plan to bring forward proposals for a new law before the next Scottish parliament election in 2021.

The last time MSPs voted on the issue of assisted suicide in 2015, they rejected Patrick Harvie’s Assisted Suicide Bill by 82-36. It was a clear, ­comprehensive victory. If you listen back to the speeches made during that debate, it was clear that MSPs did not think the law could be made safe.

Dr Gordon Macdonald is Parliamentary Officer for CARE for Scotland

Dr Gordon Macdonald is Parliamentary Officer for CARE for Scotland

Most members realised then that the risks of legalising assisted suicide were too high and would put vulnerable people at risk of harm.

But pro-assisted suicide advocates, including a few MSPs, are determined to change the law in Scotland. The well-funded, London–based campaign group Dignity in Dying are taking their campaign to ­Scotland. They are saying that if they can change the law in Scotland, it will put huge pressure on the rest of the United Kingdom to follow suit. They are fundraising so they can buy ­billboards, posters and placards in order to pressurise MSPs to change the law.

Despite the high profile and well-funded campaign, there are good ­reasons for MSPs to resist this ­pressure.

Scotland has a long and proud ­history as being a compassionate, caring society where we look after each other. Assisted suicide would undermine this heritage in a radical and unalterable way.

It would also undermine palliative care, put vulnerable people at risk and put doctors in an invidious ­position. It would heap ­pressure on some of the most vulnerable in ­society to end their life, perhaps ­prematurely because they feel as though they are a burden to loved ones or caregivers. Such an outcome is unavoidable. Instead of encouraging suicide, we should be ­helping ­people to see that they are valuable and of worth to ­family, friends and society, even in old age or ­experiencing ill-health.

In countries where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalised there is evidence of a slippery slope in terms of the numbers of those ­committing suicide and conditions which qualify for assisted suicide. Consistently we see the numbers of deaths rising year on year.

When introduced, assisted suicide laws might be focused on a certain, set of circumstances. As time goes on, the categories of eligibility extend to include more and more people. It can quickly expand from the terminally ill to include those with chronic ­illnesses, but not terminal conditions; from adults to children; from those with physical illness to include those who have psychiatric and psychological problems and even dementia.

There are proposals in some ­countries to extend laws to include elderly people who are just tired of life and suggestions that elderly ­people over a certain age should not get significant medical assistance if they are unwell.

There is a case at the European Court on Human Rights where three doctors are being investigated after a 64-year-old Belgian ­woman in good health with depression was ­euthanised, despite there being no official diagnosis. Her son only found out about it when the ­hospital ­contacted him to arrange the ­disposal of her remains.

In the USA there are instances of people been denied health insurance for cancer treatment whilst being offered funding to commit suicide. We would be naïve to assume that such cases will not also ­happen here.

It’s not good enough to talk about safeguards when the ­evidence ­suggests there is no way assisted ­suicide legislation could ever be made fully safe from abuse. Is this really the sort of society in which we want to live? In Scotland, our Christian tradition has left a legacy of concern for the most vulnerable and a sense of responsibility to look after those unable to care for themselves.

Sadly, our culture too readily equates dependence and vulnerability with weakness. But being vulnerable helps us to realise our dependence upon other human beings.

Faced with death, we have to rely on the love and care of others, especially those who work in palliative care. Depending upon and being burden to others is not a crime, but part of what it means to be human.This Easter, Christians celebrate that Jesus Christ has overcome death and offers eternal life to those who trust in Him. Faced with death, that is the ultimate Christian hope.

Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer for CARE for Scotland – www.care.org.uk.