Scotland Assisted Suicide Bill Defeated a Second Time

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 1, 2010   |   6:05PM   |   Edinburgh, Scotland

A bill that would make Scotland the first part of the United Kingdom to legalize assisted suicide has been defeated a second time.

Margo MacDonald, an Independent Lothians MSP, lost her first effort in November to get the measure out of committee and she lost a vote today in the full legislature, Holyrood.

Although some assisted suicide backers claimed a majority of people favor the controversial End of Life Assistance Bill, MSPs at Holyrood defeated the measure on a 16-85 vote. Lawmakers were allowed a free vote without having to conform to the position of their respective political parties.

MacDonald, a former Scottish National Party MP who has Parkinson’s disease, talked about the defeat afterwards.

“The outcome wasn’t any different from what I expected,’ she said, according to the Press Association. “That is what Parliament is for. Of course Parliament’s will must be respected but Parliament’s will can change. If I stand next time, if I am elected next time, people will know without any doubt I am going to pursue the idea.”

The vote came after the committee said it was “not persuaded that the case had been made” for the legislation and recommended to the full legislature that it be defeated.

The legislation allows anyone over the age of 16 to ask for a physician to prescribe a lethal cocktail to kill them. The recipient of the deadly drugs must be terminally ill at the time and find life intolerable.

But the final committee report said the definition of terminal illness in the bill presented “real problems” that were impossible to reconcile. They rejected the argument that a person’s “autonomy” allowed them to kill themselves with a doctor’s help.

The Press Association indicated MacDonald used the debate in Holyrood to trash the Care Not Killing group that has been leading efforts against the legislation, saying it was engaging in “retaliation” against her.

“I’ll cut to the chase and condemn as cheap and unworthy the contribution made by the publishers and authors of this catalogue of linguistic contortions headed Care Not Killing,” saying their literature is “tacky.”

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Secretary, responded to the vote saying “the Government has no plans to change the law” prohibiting assisted suicides.

During the committee debate, 50 people on both sides of the debate submitted oral or written testimony to members of the panel.

Critics of the legislation worried the bill would undermine the rights of the disabled and that it lacked a strong conscience clause for physicians who don’t want to be pressured into participating in assisted suicides.

American bioethics attorney Wesley J. Smith commented on the results.

“Last November, I was invited to Scotland to speak against assisted suicide and debate it at  Holyrood (the parliament), the University of Glasgow, and at a large public forum in Edinburgh,” he recalled. “The idea was for me to come to Scotland and hopefully soften the ground as the first step in a concerted campaign to defeat SMP Margaret McDonald’s anticipated attempt to legalize assisted suicide.”

“Well, my friends in Scotland seem to have done a sterling job in turning back the bill.  An important committee has turned thumbs down to doctor prescribed death,” he said. “The bill still must be debated. But this is a big deal.  Preliminary congratulations to all those who I know worked so hard to obtain this terrific result.”

About the bill and assisted suicide itself, Smith said the emphasis should be on “suicide prevention, interventions to make life more bearable, love and inclusion to help the suicidal make it to a hoped-for new dawn.”

MacDonald’s bill appears to be modeled after American laws in Oregon and Washington state that require a waiting period before a terminally ill patient can request a physician to provide a lethal drug prescription.

Pro-life advocates oppose assisted suicide and say that doctors should not be in the business of killing patients. They say patients should be given more help to cope with pain and depression and better hospice care.