Assisted Suicide: An opinion by Les Mitchell

By Les Mitchell, former General Secretary of HSS, originally published in the 2012 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

When someone very close to you dies, you tend to think quite a lot about the process of death and dying.

I have many reasons to be content with the manner of my mother’s death three months ago.

She was of a good age, had suffered dementia for many years but in her last few days was comfortable and cared for. She was pain free and in familiar surroundings. So you see I have good reason to be grateful both for her and less importantly, for me.

I’m also aware that such a ‘good death’ is not the experience of everyone. Palliative care has made enormous progress over the past few decades, yet to be pain-free is sadly not quite as possible as we’re sometimes led to believe. Too many people die in hospital often because it isn’t possible to fund adequate care at home (especially if you’re not vocal, affluent and middle-class!).

Then there’s the relatively small number of people who are suffering from the relentless progress of a disease which they know with certainty will result in great pain, and perhaps most importantly, loss of the ability to make their own decisions.

The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill addresses the problems of this latter group. It aims to help someone who has a terminal illness or condition. That person has to be competent, in other words from a legal point of view they must be capable of making an informed and rational decision. Under very clearly defined circumstances the Bill offers protection from prosecution to those who assist such a person whose request has been duly registered.

The proposed bill is a small but important start to address an issue which is of fundamental ethical importance and which lies at the heart of our humanism. Humanist Society Scotland supports Margo MacDonald’s efforts to enact this legislation. The proposal is small because the numbers concerned are relatively few: the principal however is huge because it is concerned with having a good death, and dying with dignity.

You might ask. ‘Why is HSS supporting this Bill?’ I think the answer is simple. It’s because we refute specious arguments put about by many groups, especially faith groups which create a false opposition between the choices made available in Margo’s bill and the virtues of palliative care and pain control. These are not alternatives; they (including the right to assisted suicide) are part of a range of choices which should be made available to everyone facing the prospect of a future without autonomy, freedom from pain and the ability to enjoy what they consider to be a tolerable quality of life. We support the bill because we believe in the right of everyone to self-determination; it’s because we have a duty to speak up for all those in Scotland who don’t have a religious belief and yet wish to take a moral and ethical stance on fundamental life issues.

If you want to engage in the discussion, to support the bill or simply to clarify the issues in your own mind, then look at the resources you’ll find on our own website, which also has links to a wealth of further information.

You can read more about our support for assisted suicide/dying in our policy and campaigns section.

Photo courtesy: Dignity in Dying, Creative Commons

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