The Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee has released its report on Patrick Harvie’s Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill. In contrast to previous legislation in Holyrood on assisted suicide, the Committee has decided not to make a recommendation on whether the Bill should be adopted.
This leaves MSPs with the opportunity to make up their own minds and listen to the views of their constituents when debating the general principles of the Bill at the Stage 1 debate in May. A recent poll by Populus on behalf of Dignity in Dying found that 83% of Scots would want to legalise assisted dying.
Dignity in Dying has called for some changes to be made to the Bill, in particular by limiting the eligibility criteria to give choice to terminally ill people with a prognosis of six months or less. The House of Lords agreed with this approach during the passage of Lord Falconer’s Bill (which seeks to change the law in England and Wales), as it gives clear eligibility criteria and strict safeguards to prevent abuse.
The Committee has made a number of recommendations of how to amend the Bill and the Bill’s sponsor has said he is “open to suggestions” on how to strengthen it. By allowing the Bill to pass at Stage 1, MSPs will allow for a full debate on the details of the legislation.
Dignity in Dying’s Chair Sir Graeme Catto said:
“This report is a welcome step forward in the campaign for assisted dying in Scotland. I disagree with the Committee however that the experience in Oregon cannot be used as evidence for a safeguarded assisted dying law for terminally ill people in this country. Oregon’s law has been working safely for over 18 years and while a small proportion of people take the decision to end their lives, it also provides many more with the reassurance that the choice is there if their suffering becomes unbearable in the last months of life.
“The current law in Scotland does not give people the choice to ask for medical assistance to control their death, meaning that dying people must either take matters into their own hands or travel overseas and die away from their homes, families and loved ones.
“It is imperative that the Scottish Parliament allows the Bill to proceed to a detailed consideration of the proposals. We are currently seeing a shift in perception on the issue of assisted dying across the UK and with the vast majority of the Scottish public supporting assisted dying and it is now a question of how, not if, we change the law. When the evidence is examined it shows that the way to give people choice at the end of life while also protecting vulnerable people is with an assisted dying law for terminally ill, mentally competent people.”
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The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill
The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill was introduced by the late Margo MacDonald in November 2013. After Margo died in April last year, Patrick Harvie MSP became the Bill’s sponsor. Patrick will now have two weeks to produce an official response to the Committee’s report and a full debate on the Bill is expected in May.
The Health and Sport Committee began considering the Bill in March 2014 and held evidence sessions on the Bill early this year. The previous Bill to permit assisted suicide in Scotland, the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill was rejected by a special committee established to examine the evidence on the Bill. The committee’s report from November 2010 stated:
“Overall, the majority of the Committee was not persuaded that the case had been made to decriminalise the law of homicide as it applies to assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, termed ‘end-of-life assistance’ in the Bill, and, accordingly, does not recommend the general principles of the Bill to the Parliament.”
As a result, the Bill was rejected by 85 votes to 16 with 2 abstentions.
Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill
The Assisted Dying Bill would legalise assistance to die for terminally ill, mentally competent people with a prognosis of 6 months or less under strict upfront safeguards.
The Bill was passed unopposed at Second Reading and secured a majority of support during its second day of Committee Stage when the Bill’s opponents moved an amendment to change the terminology of the Bill which was comprehensively defeated 106 – 179. A further amendment put forward which would restrict doctors who could consult with a patient was again defeated 61-119. Previously on the first day of Committee Peers had unanimously supported an amendment to introduce judicial oversight. The Bill has subsequently run out of time in this Parliament.
Dignity in Dying
Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
Notes on the Poll:
Populus interviewed 5,018 adults aged 18+ online between March 11th & 19th 2015. Interviews were conducted throughout Great Britain and the data weighted to be fully representative of all GB adults.
The poll focused on the issue of assisted dying as debated in Westminster this year.
Full tables can be found here.