'Why I want the right to die' in Scotland

A Scottish plan could allow terminally ill to seek a doctor's help in dying, but church leaders want the bill killed.

     The bill Margo Macdonald is promoting would enable anyone over 16 with a terminal illness, whose life has become intolerable, to seek help to commit suicide [GALLO/GETTY]

    When Margo Macdonald burst onto the Scottish political scene nearly 40 years ago as the winner of a famous by-election in Glasgow, the press dubbed her the "blonde bombshell".

    The glamorous former physical education teacher was just 30 when she first made it into Parliament. She is a passionate speaker with fiery left-wing politics and a personality even bigger than her famous platinum hair.

    She has never been scared to take on controversial issues, but her current campaign is also deeply personal. She wants to change the law so that she has the right to decide how and when her life will end.

    "If it came to the worst and I was faced with a very bitter and protracted end, I should have the right to ask for help to end my life earlier than nature intended," Macdonald told Al Jazeera.

    She added: "I would like the insurance policy of knowing that if it gets near, and I would like to shorten it, I would not be putting my family at risk. It is not about pain, it is about making sure you are still yourself."

    For the past 10 years, she has been fighting Parkinson's disease, a degenerative condition that makes her shake and slows her movements.

    She loves American country music and says she used to be daft on dancing, but now she struggles to walk without sticks and uses a "Margo mobile" to get around the Scottish Parliament, where she is the only independent Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP).

    The bill she is promoting would enable anyone over 16 with a terminal illness, whose life has become intolerable, to seek help to commit suicide.

    Legal help to die

    In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, it is currently a crime to help someone end his or her own life. A doctor who injects a patient with lethal drugs in order to kill them could be prosecuted for culpable homicide or even murder.

    Instead, those with the means are travelling abroad. "Going to Switzerland" is now the catchphrase among some patients with degenerative conditions. In the past 10 years, more than 160 Britons have been given legal help to die at the Dignitas clinic, in Zurich.

    "In the past 10 years, more than 160 Britons have been given legal help to die at the Dignitas clinic, in Zurich."

    Speaking from her home in Edinburgh, where she was preparing for a visit from the nurse, Macdonald said: "The thought of people in Scotland having to go to Switzerland to get help to end their lives is horribly cruel. It is also inequitable because only people with money can afford to do it."

    You have to have good resources of all kinds to travel to Zurich, and to do it before your disease becomes too advanced. The result is that many people die before they might otherwise choose so they don't miss the boat.

    Her proposals would change this by legalising assisted suicide and creating a new group of trained "licenced facilitators", whose role would be to help people die.

    They would collect medication from the pharmacist, assist the patient to take it correctly and then report the death to the police. Provided that strict guidelines had been followed there would be no prosecution.

    This is Macdonald's second attempt to legislate on this issue. In December 2010, her first bill was defeated, following a free vote in the Scottish Parliament. It went down by a big margin, 65 votes to 18.

    She says she is trying again because this is a new Parliament and she has received hundreds of letters and emails from supporters, many of whom are sufferers of terminal illnesses and their families who back her stance.

    Loss of dignity

    As she points out, what most people with degenerative neurological conditions like Parkinson's Disease or Motor Neuron Disease fear most is not physical pain, which can usually be alleviated, but loss of dignity.

    Whilst some find a kind of inner strength to cope, for others, their belief in their right to exercise personal autonomy leads them to a place where they see no good reason to go on living beyond a certain point of psychological and physical loss.

    If Macdonald is to succeed in changing the law, she will have to overcome some powerful opponents, including the Roman Catholic Church, which is an influential force in Scottish politics.

    When this issue was last debated, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, told a special Mass for Healthcare workers: "Laws need to be objective in their statement of principle. It is wrong in principle for someone to take their own life; it is wrong in principle for someone to help them to do so."

    His homily was read out at Sunday Mass to congregations across Scotland.

    Peter Kearney, Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, told Al Jazeera: "Nothing has changed. Deliberate killing, even when assisting someone who is in a state of despair, is always wrong."

    The Church's position rests on the view that human life is precious to its last breath. It is a gift from God and only He can take it away.

    "In Scotland... it is currently a crime to help someone end his or her own life. A doctor who injects a patient with lethal drugs in order to kill them could be prosecuted for culpable homicide or even murder."

    Macdonald respects the Church's position, but sees no justification for people of religious faith, forcing others to abide by moral beliefs that they do not share.

    Many doctors are also concerned that legalising assisted suicide could lead to frail or elderly people being coerced into taking their lives.

    What they really want is not the "right to die", but an affirmation of their self-worth. To be told that they are still loved and important to their families.

    Palliative care

    Dr Richard Simpson is a Labour MSP and former Chairman of Strathcarron Hospice, in central Scotland, which cares for people with illnesses that cannot be cured and provides specialist palliative care free of charge.

    Simpson told Al Jazeera, "Palliative care is not as good as it should be. If it were better, then demand for assisted suicide would be significantly less."

    He says he understands the increasing demand for individuals to have more control over the way they die, but as a doctor, he is very uncomfortable with the idea of helping someone to commit suicide.

    He added, "I just find it too difficult. I have worked with people who are facing a difficult death and most of the time, they can be made comfortable."

    Macdonald seeks to address the concern that assisted suicide breaks the contract between doctors and patients with her call for a new group of "licenced facilitators".

    She said, "I have satisfied myself and my own conscience that there are enough safeguards in what we have written to put at rest the fears some people have expressed."

    The Edinburgh MSP is convinced that a majority of the public supports her and the Scottish Parliament will eventually agree to this.

    She told Al Jazeera that the same debate is going on all over the world and if her bill is passed: "Scotland would be seen as a place where humanity, above all, and individual autonomy is respected. This legislation is really about the right of a person to see their life through and keep their dignity to the very end."

    Macdonald had to fight back tears when she spoke about the experiences of some of the people who are supporting her. She is clear that neither the question nor she is going away.

    Even if she does not succeed in changing the law, she is showing that, despite her illness, she is still a vibrant political force with a lot of living to do.

    Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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