Dying to be dignified?

MSP Margo MacDonald suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She would like to be allowed, legally, to end her life if her condition deteriorates.

Yesterday, she introduced to the Scottish Parliament a Bill proposing the legalisation of assisted suicide. She said that its intention was to allow those who suffer from terminal and degenerative conditions “to bring their life to an end before nature would decree”. Speaking, she said, from a personal perspective, this was “the point at which public policy meets personal morality”; that dying is part of living, and that the end of a person’s life should not be something over which they are refused the right to choose.

Assisted suicide is of course a hotly debated subject both in the UK and elsewhere. Although it’s legal in Switzerland, assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. Possible legalisation continues to be discussed, however, and In September 09 England’s Department for Public Prosecutions published interim guidance on the circumstances to be taken into account in determining whether prosecutions are likely to be pursued. The Lord Advocate, who has equivalent responsibilities for criminal prosecutions in Scotland, resisted calls to follow suit.

The Bill now before the Scottish Parliament will force the state to address an issue that is bound to be divisive. Whatever the outcome, large proportions of the electorate will be consider that the legislature has failed. However, speaking in December 2008 MacDonald argued, convincingly, for the need for public debate: suicide is no longer a crime, and in the Catholic church it is no longer a cardinal sin. Why then, one might ask, should it be illegal to assist someone in doing something that isn’t a crime? The need for public discussion is clear, and she is to be thanked for raising the profile so that there can be a mature conversation in Scotland.

As part of a Panorama documentary in 2008, MacDonald is filmed investigating how others have identified the means to commit suicide. Watch the clip here. I couldn’t help but share her sense of horror at the desperation that someone must be feeling to get to the point where an “exit hood”  might seem to be a viable, or the only, option.

If I am honest, it seemed sordid. But would making the process more “humane”, more “clinical” be more dignified? And are dignity and choice the major criteria we should be adopting? Or is our view too narrow? Is the issue perhaps also about our attitude to death itself, and about where that attitude comes from? Perhaps, in fact, it goes to the very core of who we understand ourselves to be.

We should consider carefully the extent to which parliament should intervene here.

Margo MacDonald is right that this issue rests at the interface of public policy and morality. But it also asks us to address whether morality extends beyond the personal realm. If there is a God, what would his view be?

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