Arguments for assisted suicide need answered

Arguments for assisted suicide need answered

by Murdo Fraser
article from Monday 8, April, 2019

THIS WEEK the “Dignity in Dying” campaign launched a new bid to change the law around assisted suicide. A Cross Party Group of MSPs wrote to The Sunday Times  making the case for reform, highlighting the recent tragic case of Geoffrey Whaley and his wife, Ann. They argued that by failing to change the law in this area, we are badly letting down a group of people in our society who are, in their words, “forced to end their lives in the most terrible suffering”.

These arguments would seem to have resonance with the public. The MSPs’ letter quoted recent opinion polling that showed that over 80 per cent of people in Scotland support a change in the law in this area.

This is an issue that has twice been addressed by the Scottish Parliament in the last decade, and on both occasions reform has been comprehensively rejected, as recently as 2015. It is not unusual to have issues where Parliament is out of step with public opinion, but the differences in this area appear to be stark.

At first look, the argument for reform seems compelling. As a liberal society, we generally take the view that individuals should have autonomy over their lives. If that is our starting principle, why should it not apply to the question of how our lives end? And harrowing personal stories will undoubtedly influence public opinion.

There is an old saying that “hard cases make bad law”. Whilst everyone will have sympathy with individuals who feel that their lives have become so unbearable that they have to try to end them, there are nevertheless very serious concerns about the consequences of a change in the law.

What would it mean, for example, for elderly or vulnerable adults, those who have to be provided with extremely expensive care? Would they not feel under pressure from relatives to end their lives if that option was available to them? And, while we struggle to provide quality palliative care for those in end-of-life situations, would the pressure to improve standards in this area be relieved if there were another, much cheaper, option readily available?

One certainty in this debate is that there remain serious reservations amongst the medical profession about changing the law. The Royal College of Physicians’ recent poll of 7,000 members showed that 43 per cent were opposed to the RCP supporting assisted suicide, as against 32 per cent in favour, while some 25 per cent argued for neutrality. Bizarrely, due to the RCP’s rules around voting, this meant that the College formally adopted a stance of neutrality, a fact jumped on by those arguing for change.

The issue raises not just practical concerns, but also wider philosophical and political issues. We regard suicide as a cause for grief. The Scottish Government has a suicide prevention strategy, for good reason. Suicide can have a devastating effect on those left behind, and for the Government to say that suicide is to be assisted in certain circumstances means that we are in danger of sending out mixed messages. In my view society should be preventing suicide, not assisting it.

Moreover, legalising assisted suicide would dangerously undermine the legal protections established in the concept of equal and inherent human dignity. It is little wonder that many disability rights groups are vigorously opposed to a change in the law, which they see as segregating life into that which is, and is not, worth continuing.

Fundamentally, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we really have become a society which says that the best answer we can provide to those in suffering, in end-of-life situations, is to help them kill themselves. Is that really all that we can offer?

So, despite the launch of this latest campaign, I will continue to oppose attempts to change the law, and instead argue for protection for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, coupled with quality investment in palliative care. In this question, it is care, not killing, that is the right answer.

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