Assisted dying – why Scotland should lead the way

June 19, 2017

By Ally Thomson, Dignity in Dying Director for Scotland, originally published in Spring 2017 Humanitie.

Growing up in Scotland 30 or so years ago I would never have imagined that one day I’d be talking up its socially progressive street credibility. Today I often, and proudly, do. I tell others about how we welcome and value the contributions of people fleeing conflict and seeking sanctuary, about our commitment to LGBTI education, the ways in which we have stood firmly against the bedroom tax and punitive benefits sanctions. I raise our record on challenging inequality, our belief and actions regarding the protection and promotion of human rights.

Lots done? For sure. Lots more to do? Absolutely.

Picture of Ally Thomson
Ally Thomson – Director for Scotland Dignity in Dying

Once in a generation a controversy arises on an ethical or political issue in which strong pressure for change is met by strong resistance. Examples have been the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself, extension of the franchise, the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion. It has sometimes taken decades for these issues to be resolved. Many of them share a common theme – the extension of liberty and choice (responsibly exercised), and rejection of the right of the state or church to make decisions on an individual’s behalf. I believe that in order for us to fully realise Scotland as a rights-respecting, compassionate country, we need to take action now to give dying people the choice to end their suffering. For me, Assisted Dying is the most socially progressive issue of our time.

Dignity in Dying campaigns for terminally ill, mentally competent adults to have the choice of assisted dying, laws that are available in many and growing jurisdictions around the world and ensure dying people do not have to suffer against their wishes. In America states such as Oregon, Washington and now California allow their citizens the right to die with dignity. Canada enacted legislation last year. On the same day Trump secured the US Presidency, Colorado became the sixth state to opt for choice at the end of life. As the first Scotland Director, it’s my job to persuade Scotland to join them.

With 82% of the UK public supporting the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill adults, it is clear that one day we will realise our aim. Until then many people will continue to suffer needlessly and many more will watch their loved family members and friends die in intolerable ways.

In Scotland we need to take action now to ensure that our compassionate values, our policies on person-centred care throughout, and at end of life, and our belief that human rights are for everyone always are realised. We need to change the law.

To be clear – a change in the law would not bring about more people dying. It would ensure less people suffer at the end of their lives. People like Noel Conway, a 67 year old recently retired Further Education teacher from Shrewsbury. Noel, supported by Dignity in Dying, is seeking permission for a Judicial Review on the grounds that the current laws contained in the Suicide Act 1961 (England and Wales) are incompatible with his basic rights. Noel was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in November 2014. His condition is terminal and he is not expected to live beyond the next 12 months.

In order to make sure that people in Scotland suffering like Noel and his family have their wishes fulfilled. We need to take the campaign for a safeguarded compassionate death with dignity to those who can make a change – people in Scotland, the courts, and the Scottish Parliament.

Pictur of Noel Conway

We need to show those who can make a change how serious we are about ending suffering. We know we have public support – we need to show the force of that support to our MSPs. We need to enable and empower them to be braver and more compassionate than they have been before when looking at assisted dying. We need to encourage them to look to other jurisdictions where a safeguarded law works well, and to take action to give terminally ill people in Scotland who are suffering the same right to die with dignity.

The courts can be enormously helpful. Noel’s case against Ministry of Justice focuses firmly on his human rights and the fact that the current law is incompatible with them. A similar case in Scotland could be the tipping point we need.

As a nation we have been at the forefront of progressive social change. We need to be there once more.

Dignity in Dying is national campaign and membership organisation campaigning for change across the UK on assisted dying. Find out more at

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