The publication of the End of Life Assistance Bill, intended to give those suffering from terminal illness or crippling disability a freedom of choice regarding their own lives, is an extremely brave move. It begins a period in which the Scottish Parliament will have to look closely at the implication of the modern lifespan, the ability of medicine to sustain life despite vastly cutting it’s quality and various moral issues. It’s all the more poignent when one considers the rapid deterioration in health of it’s author, Margo MacDonald – a woman who hopes to make use of the bill in the future.
It may well be one of the most contentious issues to face the Scottish Parliament since the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1988. In that case, the repeal passed through Parliament with 99 MSPs in favour of the bill, despite a prolonged campaign which saw various Churches, business figures and more then a few politicians take part in a long and nasty campaign against the bill.
The Bill does seek to counter several of the moral objections. The process can only be started by the individual concerned, the request must be submitted twice and must be approved by two Doctors and a Psychiatrist and witnessed by two other people. It cannot be initiated by friends or family of the patient, and the Doctors of whom the request is made must ascertain that the request has not been forced upon a person by their family. The prospect of “suicide tourism” is also dealt with, as patients must be registered with a Scottish GP for at least 18 months prior to the request being made. Overall, the End of Life Assistance Bill is an excellently crafted piece of legislation, which deals with many issues which have been raised with such legislation in the past.
Of course, this is unlikely to stop a loud and polarised debate starting. Many people have seen loved ones die in better or worse conditions, which can have a massive effect on people’s opinions, as a phone-in on Radio 5 demonstrated. There are also religious considerations – holy books can often be interpreted in many different ways. The phrase “Thou shalt not kill”, which occurs four separate times in the Bible, will almost certainly come into use in the next few months as religious objections are raised.
Importantly, there are also issues with Doctors. The BMA are not particularly happy with the proposed legislation, which is entirely understandable given that their members are trained to preserve life. I suspect that taking a life or loosing a patient is an incredibly unpleasant experience for Doctors involved. I don’t think that the BMA’s objections will halt the bill, but as with later stage abortion, I believe there will only be a limited number of Doctors who are willing to assist in the ending of a patient’s life. Of course, the BMA may simply be representing it’s policy rather then the opinion of the majority of Doctors. Only time and surveys will tell.
The progress of the End of Life Assistance Bill is going to be followed with interest by much of Scotland and many in Westminster. As with the Smoking Ban, Scotland will likely function as a “laboratory of democracy” prior to a similar bill being put forward in England and Wales. I sincerely hope it passes, as it will offer respite to a minority who find their quality of life too horrific to continue, something which can cause great suffering to all around them and completely change a person. I doubt it will be taken up by many people, but those who do will be eternally grateful for it.