Right to die is the last great human rights battle

The Herald, by Neil Mackay

09.07.19

FIFTY years from now our grandchildren will look back on how we lived in the early 21st century and shake their heads in disbelief that we were so cruel. They’ll wonder how, in 2019, our society turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to those begging to be released from their suffering – begging for the right to die, the right to end their own life in a manner, and at a time, of their choosing.

Richard Selley from Glenalmond has become the latest in a long line of men and women to damn the law as they approach death. Selley says it is ‘cruel, outdated and discriminatory’. He’s preparing to travel to Switzerland to end his life. He suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and says he has become ‘a prisoner’ in his own body.

Selley wrote an open letter to MSPs calling for assisted death to be legalised. ‘I hope that my letter to members of the Scottish Parliament might persuade more of them to support an assisted dying bill in the future. The momentum for change is growing,’ he says. ‘It will be too late for me but I hope that some time soon people in my position will have a chance to have a peaceful death.’

The right to die is the last great human rights struggle in the west. In 1918, all men, and women over the age of 30, were given the right to vote. In 1928, the right to vote was equalised for all men and women over the age of 21. In 1967, homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales, though it took until 1981 and 1982 respectively for the same to happen in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1968, abortion became legal – though it remains illegal in Northern Ireland. The death penalty was abolished in 1965.

Do we not look back now and shudder at those facts? Do we not ask how our grandparents and parents justified such a callous state of affairs? Just 100 years ago, women were second class citizens. The state was able to hang a human being five years before I was born. Amid the swinging sixties, it was illegal to love someone because they were the same sex as you – and a woman had no right to control her own body.

Most of us are proud that the country we live in today has shed so much of the bigotry and cruelty of the past but yet we accept as normal a society which forces another human being to endure pain and suffering we cannot imagine, even though they want nothing more than to die as peacefully as they can, in their own bed, surrounded by people who love them. It disgraces us. We scorn the sins of the past, but we cannot see the faults of today.

Every few months a man or woman like Richard Selley comes forward to prick our conscience – to remind us we live in a country which does not allow a fellow human being full autonomy over their life and body. They briefly ignite a conversation – which remains dominated by the religious lobby – and then they die, and we forget what they fought for and how they suffered.

The right to die is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and in ten US states including California. Polling has discovered that anywhere between 75-90% of Scots want assisted dying legalised. Politicians seem happy to force divisive decisions on us through referenda when it suits their agenda. Yet here, with a clear and large majority of Scots in favour of changing the law, most MSPs do nothing but deny the people the policies they want.

No-one is saying such a change in the law will be easy. There are continual claims that elderly or ill people will be forced by unscrupulous relatives to acquiesce unwillingly in their own death. However, other nations have passed right to die laws without such concerns becoming a reality. It makes sense to consider and safeguard against such risks, but if the risks are not risks but merely fears then this should not prevent change.

It cannot be beyond the wit of MSPs to establish an inquiry into the right to die and then make recommendations on how the law should be changed in the safest possible way so that vulnerable people are protected and suffering people have the right to end their own lives.

Perhaps this would be a sensible use of the proposed system of Citizens’ Assemblies. It would certainly seem strongly in the public interest. Let the doctors, lawyers and terminally ill – and the religious lobby – make their voices heard. Many may struggle to see how or why church leaders should have any say over their life or the lives of others. However, in order to bring about change in society maybe the ideologies of the churches need exposed to public scrutiny so we can move on as a country fully into the 21st century.

In 2015 Holyrood rejected an Assisted Suicide Bill – despite widespread public support. The failed bill was brought forward by the late MSP Margo McDonald who died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Greens, took up the cause after her death. The bill was objected to by the Church of Scotland, the Council of Imams Scotland, and the Christian charity Care for Scotland. The Catholic Church opposes assisted suicide across the world. The Royal College of Physicians recently ended it opposition to assisted dying.

The debate about the right to die lies at the very heart of the notion of personal liberty. Your body and your life belong to you. It is not for the state, the NHS, and certainly not the church, to decide what you do with your body. The very essence of freedom is the right to decide whether you end your life or not.

Richard Selley knows that in a ghastly way he is one of the lucky ones. It will cost him £10,000 to journey to the Dignitas clinic to die. He has the funds, many don’t. They will die in pain while the state looks on. ‘I am fortunate that I can afford this, but most people can’t,’ Selley says.

Neil Mackay is Scottish Columnist of the Year