Assisted suicide law the mark of a civilised, compassionate nation

THERE are few subjects that engender stronger feelings than the debate over the right to die, a subject which independent MSP Margo MacDonald has brought to the fore through her End of Life Choices Bill, published at Holyrood yesterday.

Ms MacDonald, who has Parkinson's disease, is seeking to legalise assisted suicide and make Scotland the first part of Britain to change the law. Scots involved in taking a life currently face prosecution for culpable homicide.

Within hours of publication a number of powerful groups lined up to criticise the proposed legislation, including the Catholic Church, the British Medical Association (BMA) and campaign organisations such as the Care Not Killing alliance. The Catholic Church, which has long believed that the right to life is sacred – whether that be in relation to assisted suicide or abortion – was perhaps the most outspoken, threatening to take the Scottish Parliament to the courts if the bill becomes an act.

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Their argument that such legislation would breach the European Convention on Human Rights' "right to life" is, on the face of it, a powerful one but fraught with legal difficulties over the definition of that phrase.

It could be argued that abortion would be illegal under this convention, but many European countries have liberal laws on terminations that have not, so far at least, fallen foul of this.

The BMA claimed that the bill would affect the doctor-patient relationship and physicians could find themselves under pressure from relatives of ill patients who had, for example, a financial interest in their death.

Ms MacDonald's bill, however, contains a number of safeguards that would mitigate against such pressures, including that the patient's request to die must be made to, and approved by, a doctor and psychiatrist, with both asked twice, the second time after a 15-day cooling-off period.

The criticism from the alliance is that the legislation does not spell out whether the procedure would be assisted suicide, where the person takes prescribed lethal drugs, or euthanasia, via a lethal injection.

However, Ms MacDonald is not seeking to describe precisely how assisted suicide would occur because she believes that these matters should be best decided by those who, in her words, "face an unpleasant, undignified end-of-life experience".

It is this heartfelt and sincere statement that goes to the heart of the argument and which should be very carefully considered by those groups opposed to this legislation and the majority of MSPs who seem set to vote it down.

Anyone who has seen a loved one endure terrible suffering at the hands of an incurable illness will know the pain it brings to the sufferer and the heartbreak to their relatives.

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If the person suffering is sure that they wish to end their life with dignity, and their relatives are in agreement, then it is the mark of a civilised, compassionate, modern society that they should be allowed to do so.