The Scottish Parliament has declared unambiguously that MSP Margo MacDonald’s “End of Life Assistance” Bill should not proceed further. On 1 December, on a free vote, 85 MSPs voted against the bill, with only 16 supporting it: there were two abstentions.
The Holyrood committee that examined the bill had expressed serious reservations about it in its report published on 18 November.
It drew attention to a considerable number of defects, not the least of them being the bill’s ambiguity about what it was seeking to legalise, and stated that “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 ”.
The Parliament’s decision is a sensible one. But there remains the question: will any lessons be learned from this experience?
For the 'assisted dying' campaigners, there are two main lessons here.
One is that a serious effort now has to be made to strengthen the ‘safeguards’ that have appeared not only in Margo MacDonald’s failed bill but also in previous unsuccessful legislative proposals in England and Wales – and still continue to form part of the repertoire of the ‘assisted dying’ movement south of the border.
Five years ago a select committee of the House of Lords exposed a series of flaws in these so-called safeguards, yet nothing has been done in the intervening period by the campaigners to remedy them.
It must surely be clear by now, after two rejections at Westminster and another at Holyrood, that the token safeguards that are repeatedly and routinely trundled out are just not going to pass muster.
The second lesson for the campaigners is that there is a need to think seriously about separating ‘assisted dying’ from clinical practice and health care. The majority of doctors want nothing to do with it and any law that embedded ‘assisted dying’ within health care could be expected to result in the ‘doctor shopping’ that is such an unhappy and dangerous feature of the Oregon scene.
There has been vague talk of ‘tribunals’ for ‘assisted dying’, but these ideas have not been spelled out. This is a central issue in the debate and it needs to be addressed seriously.
For all of us, the main lesson is not to be taken in by euphemisms like 'end of life assistance'.
It is understandable that campaigners should resort to such language in order not to frighten the horses. But law-making is a serious business and Parliament, north and south of the border, has a right to be told in plain language what it is being asked to make lawful and unlawful.
We have seen assisted suicide and euthanasia redefined as ‘assisted dying’ and lethal drugs described as ‘medication’. This is not good enough. Euphemism and verbal evasions and ambiguities can have no place in sound law-making.