Scotland

MSPs take evidence on End of Life Assistance Bill

MSPs have begun taking evidence on plans to give terminally ill people the right to die.

Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who has Parkinson's disease, brought the bill to make it legal for someone to seek help to end their life.

A special Holyrood committee is spending the next few weeks questioning a wide range of witnesses on the End of Life Assistance Bill.

The proposals will face their first parliamentary vote in November.

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

Ms MacDonald's bill would allow people whose lives become intolerable through a progressive degenerative condition, a trauma or terminal illness to seek a doctor's help in dying.

It also proposes a series of safeguards which would prevent abuse of the legislation.

Dr Rob Jonquiere, a GP who has carried out assisted suicide in the Netherlands, where the practice was legalised in 2001, said the law had not led to a "slippery slope" in the number of people asking to die.

And he told MSPs a request for assisted death was the "most difficult request you ever get".

"Everybody is afraid, even the doctor is afraid that he will terminate the life of a person who actually may be better tomorrow," said Dr Rob Jonquiere, now communications director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.

"It is not a decision that you take on the spur of the moment."

He added: "With euthanasia, you fill your needle with medication which will stop the life.

"You give the medication and every doctor, every time, wants to the look the patient in his eye, and at that moment say 'is this really what you want?'

"If they say yes, he will give it and the patient dies at your needle."

Also giving evidence, clinical ethics expert Dr Georg Bosshard said a "clear majority" of people in most European countries supported legal assisted suicide.

But Dr Bosshard, who is based in Switzerland, where assisted suicide was legalised in 1942, said support for the measure was higher among the general public than doctors.

"As a doctor engaging in assisted suicide, you can only lose," he said, adding: "The only motive you have to do it is compassion."

The prominent advocate Lord Mackay, who led an inquiry into similar proposals at Westminster in 2004, urged MSPs to back the insertion of a clear "conscience clause" in the bill, to protect doctors and other healthcare workers with a conscientious objection to assisting a suicide.

The parliament has received a total of 601 submissions on the End of Life Assistance Bill - 521 of which opposed the measures it contains.

In order for the bill to become law, it would have to be scrutinised by a Scottish Parliament committee system, before facing several votes.

Unlike the majority of proposed legislation which comes before the Scottish Parliament, the bill would be decided by MSPs in a "free vote", rather than on a party basis.

In England, the director of public prosecutions has indicated he was unlikely to take legal action against those who assist the suicide of friends or relatives who have a settled and informed wish to die.

However, no such guidance has been given in Scotland.

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