Assisted Suicide Rejected By MSPs

27 May 2015, 19:20 | Updated: 27 May 2015, 19:24

Proposals to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland have been rejected for the second time by Holyrood.

After an emotional debate at the Scottish Parliament, MSPs voted by 36 to 82 against the general principals 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.

The Bill was originally brought forward by independent MSP Margo MacDonald, but has been championed by Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens since her death last April.

Ms MacDonald, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, had made an earlier attempt to change the law north of the border in 2010, which failed by 85 votes to 16.

Religious groups, who had campaigned against the change, welcomed the latest vote as a "major victory for the vulnerable in our society".

Dr Gordon Macdonald, convenor of Care Not Killing, the umbrella group which spearheaded the campaign against the Bill, said: "MSPs have issued a ringing endorsement of our views with this comprehensive vote, taking a bold and critical step which marks a major victory for the vulnerable in our society who are most in need of protection."

He insisted: "The present law making assisted suicide illegal is clear and right and does not need changing.

"In every free democratic society there are limits placed on human freedom in order to protect the common good and vulnerable people. It is right that the law is not to be changed to accommodate the wishes of a small number of desperate and determined people at the expense of the rights of others."

He added that while the Bill had been "overwhelmingly rejected", it is likely similar proposals will be brought before MSPs in the future.

But he said as this was the second bid to legalise assisted suicide in five years, "the issue should not be brought back before Holyrood for a substantial number of years, at least a generation".

He said: "While MSPs have overwhelmingly rejected this Bill to legalise assisted suicide, we are under no illusions that those who support the idea of state-sponsored killing will go away.

"One thing is sure. They will inevitably be back again at some point in the future.

"That is why we must remain ever vigilant and on alert to challenge and debunk their dark and deathly propaganda which offers a vision of the future which has no place in Scottish civilised society."

Holyrood's Health Committee, which scrutinised the legislation, had already raised a number of concerns about the proposals - including its failure to define assisted suicide and the lack of clarity about the method that those wishing to end their life would use.

There were also worries about the number of people who could potentially be considered for assisted suicide and the effect it could have on the vulnerable.

Mr Harvie said afterwards that while the legislation "just wasn't good enough" to convince MSPs, it had increased awareness of the issue.

He said: "I think we would have been really quite stunned if the Bill had passed. We knew that it was going to be an uphill struggle getting to a majority or even getting close.

"Clearly the detail of this Bill just wasn't good enough to convince Parliament but I think it's clearly awoken more people to the problems with the current law, for example the lack of support that there is for the estimated 50 people a year who are terminally ill and commit suicide in Scotland in a complete legal vacuum."

Mr Harvie continued: "It's very clearly a step forward for the argument, not just an increased show of support amongst MSPs but I think a much clearer case has been made during the scrutiny of the Bill that the current law as it stands is unclear.

"Obviously members were not convinced of the detail of this particular Bill but I think the argument for some change in the law will continue.

"We're currently seeing a legal challenge against the Scottish Government in terms of what the current law even means. There's a real lack of clarity and I think the case for some kind of change will continue."

Asked whether he could see the issue coming before parliament again in the near future, Mr Harvie said: "The issue is working its way through the court in a judicial review in terms of the Lord Advocate's prosecution guidelines.

"It's unclear what actions would be open to criminal prosecution at present under the current law if somebody sought assistance to commit suicide.

"We do need clarity in what the law says. After that I think it's likely to be the next session of Parliament before anyone considers an actual legislative change but a range of organisations might explore what the options are."

The My Life, My Death, My Choice group, which had campaigned in favour of the Bill, said it was "naturally disappointed" by the result but pointed out the number of MSPs in favour had more than doubled since the last vote.

A spokesman said: "This shows that politicians are increasingly ill at ease with the current law surrounding assisted suicide and are beginning to catch up with the views of their constituents.

"It may be that MSPs had concerns about some of the details in this Bill but the principle that a change in the law needs to be examined seriously has been established.

"We will keep fighting to convince MSPs to find a way to deliver this change quickly and in a responsible manner which protects vulnerable groups, representing the clear desire of the Scottish people. Although disappointed with the result, we are emboldened by the increasing support for our cause both amongst MSPs and the wider public."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison were amongst those who voted against the legislation, along with Scottish Labour deputy leader Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.

But with MSPs voting with their conscience and not on party lines, those who backed it included Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead, Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe Fitzpatrick and the Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw.