Strong pushback against Scottish assisted suicide proposals

7 January 2022

Carys Moseley, Public Policy Researcher for Christian Concern, writes on the widespread opposition to attempts to introduce assisted suicide in Scotland.

Over the Christmas period there has been a strong response to proposals to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland.

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam MacArthur had published proposals for a bill. We called on supporters to respond by the deadline of 22 December 2021. Many Christian and medical organisations have voiced strong and clear opposition to the proposals since then as well. It is worth surveying their statements given that the campaign to legalise assisted suicide is not going away.

Unacceptable pressure on vulnerable people

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference for Scotland highlighted the risk to the lives of the disabled.

“Legalising assisted suicide, which is contrary to the dignity of the human person, would put immeasurable pressure on vulnerable people including those with disabilities to end their lives prematurely, for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden on others.”

CARE for Scotland warned politicians not to fall into the trap of believing that proposed safeguards would prevent abuse.

“No safeguards could ever prevent the invisible pressure on already sick and vulnerable people to consider such an option.”

Junior doctors speak up

Scottish junior doctors sent an open letter to MSPs asking them to oppose the bill. In it they warned that legalising assisted suicide would strain the relationship between doctors and patients as well as with their families.

The letter points out that in Oregon in 2019, 59% of patients who chose assisted suicide said they feared being a burden on their families, friends or caregivers.

Negative effect on the medical profession

The negative effect of legalising assisted suicide would not only be felt by patients. The proposals would also sap the morale of the medical and healthcare professions. We warned in our consultation guide that allowing doctors, pharmacists and psychologists to assist a person to commit suicide would fundamentally undermine the very nature of these professions. The purpose of medicine is to preserve life and heal illness, not to assist people to kill themselves or others suffering from illness.

Dr Gordon Macdonald, CEO of Care Not Killing, issued a warning to Scottish politicians.

“Many doctors and nurses simply won’t want to practise medicine or nursing and will move to England or Northern Ireland if assisted suicide is legalised in Scotland. Older doctors will just opt to retire and won’t be replaced.”

Church of Scotland opposes assisted suicide

Jim Wallace, the former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and deputy first minister, is now the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. As a Liberal Democrat he belongs to the same party as Liam MacArthur, the MSP who is campaigning for a change in the law. Wallace told the Herald that the Church of Scotland remains opposed to assisted suicide.

In its consultation response the Church of Scotland pointed out that the MacArthur proposals’ use of the term ‘assisted dying’ is highly misleading. Many people believe that this term simply refers to palliative care to alleviate pain at the end of life. This is probably the reason that assisted suicide campaigners have taken to using it. Indeed the MacArthur proposals cynically claimed that funding for palliative care had increased in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal, such as Oregon. What was not said was that no amount of funding for palliative care once assisted suicide is legal is enough. This is because as was explained above, the fundamental nature and purpose of the medical and healthcare professions have been corrupted in those jurisdictions to allow doctors to kill patients.

Examples not to follow – Belgium and the Netherlands

Dr Gillian Wright, the director of Out Duty of Care, a group of Scottish doctors opposed to assisted suicide, has criticised the situation in Belgium and the Netherlands. She told the press that the Belgian Intensive Care society is now recommending involuntary euthanasia for those deemed unlikely to fully recover. There is now involuntary euthanasia for babies with disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities in the Netherlands.

The Belgian law was criticised in the UN Human Rights Council last year. Belgium was undergoing the three-year Universal Periodic Review of its human rights commitments. It was urged to protect the vulnerable by delegates representing Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt.

Learning from Covid-19 situation

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I noted that those deemed most at risk were also the ones most at risk from propaganda for euthanasia. Given heavy lockdown rules at the time, some categories of people were vulnerable to the temptation of considering themselves ‘a nuisance to society’. It is therefore worth noting that in relation to the Scottish proposals, several Christian organisations couched their arguments in terms of needing to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Evangelical Alliance said this:

“[Legalising assisted suicide] would send the message to terminally ill patients that ending their life early is something they should consider, adding all sorts of unnecessary anxieties and stresses in the most vulnerable moments of someone’s life…After two years of COVID-19, these pressures are the last thing we need to introduce within our palliative care services.”

Commenting on how the proposals could discourage doctors from practising in Scotland, Gordon MacDonald from Care Not Killing had this to say:

“We are already seeing the impact of staff shortages on wider healthcare services in Scotland within the context of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, especially in intensive care and respiratory medicine…That will get much worse if assisted suicide is legalised and people won’t be able to access health services as a result.”

Doctors with most relevant experience oppose assisted suicide

Supporters of assisted suicide may argue that medical bodies are slowly shifting their stances from opposition to neutrality. This is true of the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors. However the best evidence shows that it is those doctors who actually work with terminally ill patients who oppose assisted suicide. Just before the New Year a consultant oncologist Dr David J Galloway explained in the Times why he opposed the proposals for Scotland:-

 “In every jurisdiction that has permitted either assisted suicide and or euthanasia, unbearable physical suffering and poor pain control are rarely the reasons people seek an assisted death. More often it comes down to a sense of hopelessness, loss of capacity to engage in enjoyable activities or not wishing to become a burden on family.”

Galloway also warned that in Oregon the drugs used for assisted suicide do not lead to a painless death, but to ‘protracted nausea, vomiting and other distressing symptoms’.

Let doctors be doctors

The key lesson in all this is that Scottish politicians should reject these latest proposals to legalise assisted suicide. They would fundamentally alter the medical profession in that doctors would be allowed to help people end their own lives. This means that doctors would no longer be allowed to be doctors in the workplace. The answer is to halt plans to legalise assisted suicide and end the dishonest rebranding of it as ‘assisted dying’. Through this politicians would take a step back and allow doctors to be doctors.

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