Political Promise

In Support of Assisted Suicide

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 8:54 am

The devolution settlement that gave Scotland its Holyrood Parliament has had many critics since its inception in 1999, both north and south of the border. However, one of its few unsung successes, in my view at least, is that it allows room for another legislative body in this country that occasionally churns out socially innovative legislation. Too often, the Scottish Parliament can seem like an echo chamber full of debate about some fairly obscure and dull devolved issue, like fisheries or something similarly irrelevant to most people. Sometimes, however, Holyrood can catch a social zeitgeist and effectively turn Scotland into a guinea pig, trying out legislation like the Anti-Smoking Bill that, if successful, is often implemented in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.   

It is my fervent hope that this scenario will come to pass with Margo McDonald’s End of Life Choices Bill, which has led to much debate across the country Bill has and will soon be put before the Scottish Parliament. Margo McDonald is an Independent MSP, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the mid 1990s. Her proposed Bill would set up in Scotland a system similar to those already initiated in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US state of Oregon, where medically assisted suicide is a choice open to terminally ill patients. 

 That this Bill has caught a zeitgeist, or reflects a growing sentiment within Scottish and British society, is surely not in doubt. There have been many high profile trials recently of people who allegedly assisted in the suicide of a terminally ill relative. The broadcaster Ray Gosling has recently admitted to smothering a lover who was suffering the final agonies of AIDS. In the recent Dimbleby Lecture, author Terry Pratchett delivered lucid and passionate plea for the right to seek assistance in ending his life when his particular type of Alzheimer’s begins to cut the threads in his brain which make him him, when the man we know as Terry Pratchett ceases to exist and is replaced by a suffering shell of a human being. I recommend the lecture to you; he makes the argument with far more skill and persuasiveness than I ever could.

Still, I’ll have a go anyway. It is no surprise that many people fear, or are suspicious of, an assisted dying system. After all, most sane people fear death in some way. Most of us cannot imagine a situation where death is a blessed release, or choose not to. For too many though, it is an unavoidable consideration. Mother Nature is a cruel old thing; She has devised a whole host of diseases and afflictions that kill us at a snail’s pace, inflicting unendurable agony on the journey, or diseases which rob the individual of their dignity, their identity, and their sense of self over a similarly, agonisingly slow period of time. Assisted dying gives the patient a way out of this, if, and only if, they choose to use it. They can make a decision, while they are still in control of their faculties, that once their disease reaches a certain point of pain and physical or mental decline, they can request that their medical professional give them a means to end their life, or ends their life for them should they be unable to complete the task.

These are horrible scenarios to consider. But consider them we must, for the end game of a disease like Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, or Motor-Neurone Disease, or the myriad forms of cancer are even more horrible, and are faced by brave people up and the down the country every day. Assisted dying does not threaten the sanctity of life, it reaffirms it because it holds life to be too precious to be suffered through in pain and indignity. Why prolong un-ending pain? Why suffer through to the end of an insufferable life? Why rage against the dying of the light when we can meet the end of the light on our own terms, in a peaceful, dignified and pain-free manner? Although I hope I’ll never have to make the choice, there is something I find immensely comforting and fitting about Terry Pratchett’s vision of his final moments; a favourite spot in the garden, a favourite chair, a favourite drink to wash down the appropriate cocktail of drugs, and a choice selection of loved ones with which to watch the sun set on the day, the final day of an unliveable life which would soon get worse by several orders of magnitude. This death is quite, dignified, and most importantly, on one’s own terms. These days, people of all political and moral stripes claim ‘rights’ over how they live their lives and conduct their affairs. Why can we not demand rights over how we conduct another important part of our life – our death?

Michael Watt


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