The Memo: Assisted dying in the UK: Scotland to lead the way?

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Assisted dying in the UK: Scotland to lead the way?

James Westmacott - 15 April 2024

Assisting in the death of an individual has long persisted as a criminal offence in the UK, punishable in the worst-case scenario with a whopping 14 years behind bars. But things could be about to change as Scotland seeks to set the UK on a path towards a greater acceptance of assisted dying following the introduction of a Scottish parliament bill. If passed, McArthur’s bill – which is named after the Liberal Democrat MSP, Liam McArthur, who introduced the motionwill provide adults with the opportunity to opt for assistance in ending their own lives. However, it’s important to note that the bill is aimed at terminally ill or severely disabled individuals who have reached a personal conclusion that ending their life would be preferable to its continuation.

Critics argue that by only permitting this course of action for those deemed ill enough to qualify, such a move will simply devalue the lives of those who are terminally ill or those who live with painful disabilities. Meanwhile, proponents are advocating for strict eligibility criteria – which has been successfully implemented in countries like Australia, Switzerland, and New Zealandwhereby concrete processes such as rigorous medical assessments and lack of external influence are required before an individual can choose assistance in their own death. The general idea is that those with an illness or disability which is adversely impacting their quotidian life and causing inescapable pain should, at the very least, be offered an alternative. Not everyone living under these circumstances would choose the assisted dying route, but those who may seek to put an end to everyday struggles or to avoid a traumatic death could.

Whilst the bill has only been tabled in Scotland, Westminster has also readied itself for talks on the issue, and Labour leader Keir Starmer has offered a parliamentary vote on decriminalising assisted dying if he is electorally successful. This change of tune within parliament ultimately reflects public opinion. Following nationwide polling, campaigning group Dignity in Dying Scotland found that 78% of respondents supported the legalisation of assisted dying, with 75% in support as per a UK-wide poll encompassing over 10,000 participants. To really emphasise this shift, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians have both recently ended their long-standing opposition to the concept of assisted dying.