New drive to win backing for assisted dying law in Scotland

Assisted dying campaigners claim there is now 'empathy and understanding' among MSPs about the need to introduce the controversial measure in Scotland.
The partner of a woman who ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was investigated by police in the UKThe partner of a woman who ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was investigated by police in the UK
The partner of a woman who ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was investigated by police in the UK

Supporters are preparing to step up activities in the coming months, with a keynote screening of the groundbreaking documentary How to Die in Oregon being staged in Edinburgh next week to help raise awareness.

But opponents warned that there is no groundswell of support for such a move and say a lack of safeguards in the US state has prompted concerns that vulnerable people are being pressurised to end their lives prematurely.

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The Scottish Parliament has twice rejected plans to introduce assisted dying in Scotland over the past decade, but campaigners insist flaws in the previous legislation were the problem and the measure has overwhelming public support.

A cross-party group at Holyrood has been established to look at the prospect of a fresh attempt to introduce assisted dying. Legislation appears unlikely in the current parliament, but campaigners are poised to launch a renewed drive in the new year to win over the public and politicians.

Heather McQueen founded Dignity in Dying Edinburgh group after watching her mother suffer a “cruel and “inhumane” death two years ago. She is behind the documentary screening being held by the group at St Augustine’s on Monday evening as part of an awareness-raising push to dispel the myths. Ms McQueen says lack of understanding surrounding assisted dying means that people are “frightened” by the process.

She added: “Having seen this film it’s touching, it’s harrowing, but it’s actually quite re-assuring. I know this sounds strange but there are some really nice deaths there.

“And having seen a not nice death, I think it would be good for people to realise that that’s what this can allow.”

The award-winning documentary takes a fly-on-the wall style approach to several cases in the US state where assisted dying has been legal for the past 20 years. It has won a number of awards and featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

The late Margo MacDonald spearheaded two attempts to introduce assisted suicide legislation. it was defeated by 85 votes to 16 at Holyrood in 2010. Five years, later, following Mrs MacDonald’s death from Parkinson’s disease in 2014, it was again rejected. But this time support increased to 36 MSPs backing it, albeit opposition remained stable at 82.

Ms McQueen’s described the previous attempts at passing legislation in Scotland as “half-cocked”. “There were various problems with the way it has been discussed before,” she said.

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“One of the main problems I think is that it went forward as an Assisted Suicide Bill. But this is quite definitely not assisted suicide.

“These are people who are dying. That’s what we want to change, who we want the choice for.

“So in no way are we talking about introducing a bill to legalise suicide, that’s not the same thing at all.”

Polling conducted by Dignity in Dying indicates that 83 per cent of the voting public in Scotland are in favour of assisted dying.

“Had they actually considered an idea with more safeguards built in, I don not think we would have had the outcome we had,” Ms McQueen went on.

“Having spoken to some MSPs, although they’re unwilling to commit and don’t want to say anything they’re going to be quoted on, I’m actually detecting a lot of empathy and a lot of understanding that this does actually need to change.”

But Dr Gordon Macdonald, Senior Policy Officer with CARE for Scotland said there was “no evidence” of a shift in opinion among MSPs on the issue.

He said: “The public when presented with the main arguments opposed to assisted suicide show that there is no overwhelming support for that proposal.

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“Rather support for assisted suicide falls dramatically [to less than 50 per cent] when the public get the opportunity to hear the main argument against it, that it would put vulnerable people at risk. For these reasons MSPs should reject any new efforts to change the law in this area.”

He pointed to “year on year increases” in the number of people committing suicide with state assistance where it is legal. “In Switzerland, the number of assisted suicides has increased by over 2,500 per cent in the same period with alarming levels of assisted suicide tourism now occurring,” he added.