MSPs vote 82-36 against bill that proposed those with terminal illnesses could seek help of doctor to end their lives, after deeply personal debate.
The Scottish parliament has voted to reject legislation on assisted dying following a heartfelt and at times deeply personal debate on Wednesday, carried out in the shadow of the late MSP Margo MacDonald, who initiated the bill before her death last year.
MSPs voted by 82 to 36 against the general principles of the assisted suicide (Scotland) bill. It had proposed that those with terminal or life-shortening illnesses should be able to obtain help to end their suffering.
MSPs were given a free vote on the bill, which would allow those with terminal illnesses to seek the help of a doctor to end their own life, although the Scottish government did not support changing the law.
The veteran independent MSP Margo MacDonald had tried unsuccessfully to change the law on assisted dying once before, five years ago. After her death in April 2014 following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, her second bill was championed by the leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, who gave his commitment to MacDonald to present it to parliament as best he could.
Holyrood’s health committee recently concluded that the bill contained “significant flaws” and opposed its general principles, but Harvie argued that the legislation could be improved if MSPs supported the bill in principle.
Opening the debate, during which almost every speaker mentioned MacDonald by name, Harvie said: “I think the case has been made very clear that a change in the law has been justified.”
“Whatever view members take of the detailed operation of this legislation were we to pass it, I hope that all members who understand the basic principle, who accept the idea that human beings have the right to make a decision in circumstances such as a terminal or life-shortening illness, I hope that members will give this bill the opportunity to come forward to the next stage, and then we can begin to debate the amendments that come forward.”
Arguing against the bill’s passage, Shona Robison, the Scottish health secretary, told the Holyrood chamber: “The government believes that the current law is clear, and it is not lawful to assist someone to commit suicide, and the government has no plans to change that.”
In its current form, the bill states that only those who are terminally ill or who are suffering from deteriorating progressive conditions which make life intolerable can seek assisted dying, and requires that any requests to GPs must be backed up by a second professional opinion, and followed by a 14-day “cooling off” period.
It also states that the facilitator, or “friend at the end”, should have no prior relationship with the patient and is given the task of collecting the prescription and agreeing the process of assisted dying.
Supporting the bill, the SNP MSP George Adam – whose wife suffers from multiple sclerosis – offered a personal perspective, describing how his family had discussed assisted dying.
Scottish Labour’s Neil Findlay described himself as “deeply, deeply torn over the issue”, explaining that this was the most difficult issue he had had to consider as an MSP.
But Alison McInnes, a Scottish Liberal Democrat, argued that she did not accept that there was “a right to die”, adding that she believed the bill failed to address how a right to die for a vulnerable person “could become a duty to die”.
The Law Society of Scotland had also expressed concern that the law lacked clarity, while the Church of Scotland urged MSPs to do more to improve end-of-life care instead of backing the bill.