Scotland politics

Assisted suicide law in Scotland 'needs clarity', MSPs told

Nurse and patient holding hands Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The Assisted Suicide Bill will be scrutinised by MSPs before parliament is asked to vote on it

Legal experts and the police said a law allowing assisted suicide in Scotland needed more clarity in order to remove the risk of someone being prosecuted.

There is a "fine line" between assisting someone killing themselves and an act of euthanasia which could result in criminal charges, MSPs heard.

The plans, contained in a backbench bill, have widespread public backing, said supporters.

But opponents believed such a move was "unethical and uncontrollable".

The Scottish government does not support a change in the law.

The Assisted Suicide Bill would give people whose lives have become intolerable through a progressive degenerative condition or terminal illness the right to seek the help of a doctor to help end their lives.

The legislation, which has begun its passage through parliament, says the final act must be carried out by the person seeking to end their own life.

But Prof Alison Britton, of the Law Society of Scotland, said a definition of assisting suicide was needed, especially in cases where someone had become too ill to end their life.


Assisted suicide - the legal position

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Guidance on assisted suicide in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was issued after the Debbie Purdy case

It is not illegal to attempt suicide in Scotland, but helping someone take their own life could lead to prosecution.

In England and Wales, the Suicide Act 1961 makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt, which is almost identical to the situation in Northern Ireland.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has to approve any assisted suicide court action in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2010, Keir Starmer, then the DPP, issued guidance that made it clear that family or friends who travelled with a loved one to the Swiss suicide group Dignitas would not risk prosecution.

The guidelines were the result of a case brought by Debbie Purdy, a terminally ill woman, who in 2009 won a legal ruling requiring the DPP to set out whether her husband would be committing an offence if he accompanied her to Dignitas to end her life.

Scotland's prosecution service, the Crown Office, has issued no such guidance.

Assisted suicide is legal in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium as well as Switzerland.


She told the Scottish Parliament's health committee: "We need to be very clear what actually this assistance encompasses, and we need to be also clear at what point is there a demarcation where assistance is being given and that actually crosses over to being complicit in homicide."

Also appearing before MSPs, prosecutor Stephen McGowan, representing the Crown Office, said: "The line between assisting someone and taking the act out of that persons hands is a fine one.

"The key part of this is, there is no definition of what assistance actually is and what it is to assist someone in suicide."

Mr McGowan said thought should be given to a definition, adding: "Otherwise, it does expose those who might seek to assist others to criminal prosecution which is obviously not desirable."

Det Ch Supt Gary Flannigan, of Police Scotland, added: "Any confusion is likely to lead to a police investigation, which I think most people would seek to avoid, and that would be the consequence of a lack of clarity around this specific issue."

The committee also heard from bodies representing medical professionals, which stressed the importance of a "conscience clause", allowing doctors and pharmacists to opt out of assisted suicide on moral grounds.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Margo MacDonald launched the bill before her death last year
Image caption Opponents of assisted suicide staged a protest outside the Scottish Parliament building

The Assisted Suicide Bill, which contains a series of safeguards which aim to prevent abuse of the legislation, was brought forward by the late independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who died last year after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

It is now being championed by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who said there was "substantial public support" for the principle behind the legislation.

He said: "I believe this bill represents the continuation of a long term trend toward respect for the right of people to make choices about their own lives, in an informed and supported way, and to decide what kind of assistance they need."

But those opposed to legal assisted suicide, including the campaign group Care Not Killing, have described it as "unnecessary, unethical and uncontrollable".

A spokesperson for the organisation, which staged a protest outside the parliament building, said: "We do not want the state-sanctioned killing of old, ill and disabled people of all impairment.

"We want support for people to live - not to die."


Assisted Suicide Bill - key measures

  • Only those who are terminally ill or who are suffering from deteriorating progressive conditions which make life intolerable can seek assisted suicide.
  • An "early warning" aspect, whereby anyone over the age of 16 can inform their GP of their support in principle for assisted suicide.
  • The indication can be noted in the person's medical records, but must be stated at least seven days before they can formally request help to end their life.
  • Any requests to GPs must be backed up by a second professional opinion, and followed by a 14-day "cooling off" period.
  • The process is then repeated again with a second request, after which one of the doctors concerned supplies a licensed facilitator with a prescription to enable assisted suicide to take place.
  • The facilitator, or "friend at the end", has no relationship with the patient and is given the task of collecting the prescription and agreeing the process of assisted suicide.
  • If the prescription is not used within 14 days, it must be returned to the chemist.

The health committee, which will also hear from faith groups and campaigners on both sides of the debate, will spend the next few months taking evidence before reporting to parliament in the spring.

MSPs will then get the opportunity to pass or reject the bill.

In 2010, a similar piece of legislation was defeated by 85 votes to 16, with two abstentions, by MSPs who were allowed a free vote on the proposals, rather than on party lines.

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