Talking at cross-purposes
Following her recent re-election, the independent MSP Margo MacDonald has announced that she plans to re-introduce her Bill to legalise assisted dying. In the first vote on this bill at the end of 2010, MacDonald failed to gain the support of other MSPs and lost by 85 votes to 16. Following the Swiss referendum earlier this month in which 85 per cent of Zurich residents voted not to outlaw assisted suicide and 78 per cent voted to continue to allow ‘suicide tourism’ (foreign nationals travelling to Switzerland to obtain assistance in committing suicide), MacDonald has highlighted her intention to put the Bill forward a second time. She argues that as long as the option of seeking assistance in Switzerland continues to exist for British people, British politicians will attempt to ‘dodge the dilemma’ on assisted dying.
It is not yet clear what changes Macdonald will make to the ‘End of Life Assistance’ Bill before it is re-introduced. The Scottish Parliamentary Committee that reviewed the Bill in 2010 highlighted a number of concerns about the ambiguous wording of the previous Bill. Some of their most notable concerns included:
1) There was no clear definition of what ‘end of life assistance’ referred to. The definition provided ‘including the provision or administration of appropriate means, to enable a person to die with dignity and a minimum of distress’ – could just as easily apply to normal palliative care. There was no clarity on whether the Bill proposed to legalise assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, or both.
2) Those eligible for assistance under the Bill’s terms included terminally ill people who ‘find life intolerable’ and people who are ‘permanently physically incapacitated to such an extent as not to be able to live independently and find life intolerable.’ The Committee found the wording of this second group ‘extraordinarily wide’ and pointed out that it poses ‘a number of equalities issues’ for disabled people.
How MacDonald responds to the concerns that were raised by the Committee in the re-drafting of her Bill will be critical to the UK debate on assisted dying. Accurate reporting by the media will also be essential to ensure that there can be an informed public debate on this highly controversial issue. A recent article by the Herald reported that MacDonald’s last bill ‘set out that anyone aged over 16 could request help to die under conditions which specified that the person would have to be diagnosed as terminally ill and find life intolerable.’ It completely overlooked the additional proposed eligibility for people who are ‘permanently physically incapacitated.’
If the debate on assisted dying continues to be characterised by inaccuracy, we will not get any closer to clarity on one of the most controversial public policy issues of our time. Previous surveys of public opinion have shown that details matter; for example, a Populus survey demonstrated that there is far more public support for people who are terminally ill to have the option of assisted suicide, than for people who have a severe physical disability.
The Commission on Assisted Dying, which is hosted by Demos, is aiming to bring clarity to the issue of assisted dying by conducting a wide-ranging review of the evidence – both in the UK and in those jurisdictions that permit assisted dying. The evidence will inform a report published by the Commission later this year investigating whether we need a change of approach to the issue of assisted dying in the UK. The final public evidence session for the Commission will take place at Demos on Wednesday.