Euthanasia debate in Scotland: A slippery slope or a fundamental human right?

THE debate around the issue of assisted suicide is heating up ahead of the Scottish parliament elections later this year.

Controversial calls for a change in euthanasia laws are on the rise, with more than three quarters of Scots (76%) in support of parliamentarians debating the issue after May’s Holyrood elections.

The poll, commissioned by Humanist Society Scotland and Dignity in Dying Scotland, found that 87% of people are in favour of making assisted suicide an option for terminally ill people.

The news comes just weeks after former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson announced that she has changed her stance on the issue – having previously voted against a bill to legalise assisted dying in 2015.

Alyson Thomson, director of Dignity in Dying Scotland, said: “The quality of life matters just as much as life itself.

“We are seeing a growing movement of support for our campaign, and more people are speaking out about the difficult choices which they sometimes face.”

Dignity in Dying Scotland only supports the option of assisted dying in Scotland for terminally ill people.

According to Mrs Thomson, the main argument against their campaign is that palliative care is a suitable alternative.

She said: “We absolutely support calls for more investment in palliative care, but it doesn’t work for everybody.

“Palliative care and assisted dying are not mutually exclusive and people should be allowed to die with dignity.”

Although only the Greens and the Liberal Democrats – who currently hold just ten out of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament between them – have a strong stance in support of the move to change euthanasia legislation, Mrs Thomson says “there is cross-party support” from a number of current MSPs.

A members’ bill tabled by former Deputy SNP leader Margo MacDonald was rejected in Holyrood in 2015, and the issue has not been debated in the Scottish Parliament since.

However, consecutive polls are now showing growing public support for the legalisation of assisted suicide in Scotland – with other western countries like Canada, and parts of the USA and Australia already practicing it to varying extents.

Chief executive of Humanist Society Scotland, Fraser Sutherland, said that the reasons for the change in public opinion over time include the changing demographics of the country, and the changing stances of medical bodies like the British Medical Association – who are now neutral on the issue.

He said: “Children born in the 60s and 70s are not bringing their children up to be religious in the same way that their parents did to them.”

New Zealand became the latest country to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill patients with less than six months to live, becoming the first nation to put the matter to a nationwide vote.

More than 65% of votes cast were in favour of the bill.

However, assisted dying of any sort is illegal in the overwhelming majority of European countries, despite a growing dialogue in many.

Mr Sutherland added: “The cruel fact remains that individuals are continued to be denied choices at the end of their life in Scotland.

“Yet those rich and well enough are able to access such options by travelling abroad at great personal expense.

“This must change.”“The cruel fact remains that individuals are continued to be denied choices at the end of their life in Scotland.”

Calls for a change in the law have been criticised by Our Duty of Care, a campaign group run by doctors.

Dr Gillian Wright, of Our Duty of Care, agrees that individual autonomy is important, but thinks proposed changes to current legislation would go too far.

In a letter published in The Scottish Herald, she said: “People who are disabled or dependent are of extraordinary value and worth.

“Society should reaffirm this when they feel of little worth or dread dependence.

“When we acquiesce that some lives are not worth living, we are on a dangerous path indeed.”

Gillian Allinson, 44, a Humanist Society Scotland member, said: “I really believe it’s a fundamental human right and a matter of personal choice.

“Every person has the right to a good death – it’s not always possible but people should be allowed to take charge of their own end of life care.”

Tesco bakery worker Lara Frew, 22, from Stow, added: “If someone is really unwell and constantly in pain then it should be there choice to pass on in the way that they had hoped.”

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Calum Sutherland, at PPE student at the University of Stirling, said: “I draw a strong distinction between assisted dying and assisted suicide.

“Someone who suffers from depression can be effectively treated so as to provide a high quality of life, and should never be grounds for euthanasia.”

And Abby Wilson, 23, a post mortem support officer from Newtown St Boswells, said: “I think there are more suitable alternative to euthanasia, like palliative care.

“There are ways to kill the symptoms without killing the patient. To give doctors the right to decide whether patients live or die could lead to a very slippery slope.”

With the SNP pushing for a second independence referendum potentially as early as the end of 2021, and with opposition parties scrutinising them on their records in government – particularly on health and education – it is unlikely that assisted suicide will be a main election issue for any of the main parties.

However, if a members’ bill is introduced early in the next parliament, all MSPs who are elected in May will have to decide where they stand on the issue.

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