Wednesday afternoon, Holyrood will debate the general principles of the late Margo MacDonald's Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, probably for the last time. If MSPs endorse the Bill's general principles, it will speed on through the processes of parliamentary amendment and scrutiny. If they knock the proposals back, that will be the end of the matter. The Health and Sport Committee produced a critical but patchy Stage One report on the draft being shepherded through parliament by Patrick Harvie, but declined to make a recommendation on how MSPs should vote on Wednesday. Once again, this one is between individual parliamentarians and their consciences.
It seems very likely that the majority will exercise these to assist the Bill to an early end, disgareeing to its general principles, which would introduce a procedure and safeguards to allow individuals to be assisted to kill themselves if certain conditions are met. The debate in the last session, rejecting Margo's first Bill, was considered, personal, and did the parliament and its members credit. We can only hope that the discussion this week reflects those values and principles. But for campaigners, supporting this Bill, the outcome is likely to represent another disappointment.
In the ferment of the referendum and general election campaigns, the reforms being proposed and the arguments for and against introducing them have flown under the radar, somewhat. Attention has, understandably, been elsewhere. But in rejecting this Bill, parliament is not closing the issue -- merely deferring difficult questions.
The Lord Advocate believes the law on assisting suicides in Scotland is crystal clear and that prosecutors and the police know a crime when they see one. I disagree. As do a number of other weightier scholars and commentators on our criminal laws. Profound uncertainty continues to characterise basic questions about what kinds of assistance are and are not criminal under Scots law.
Would I be at risk of prosecution if I prepared a fatal dose of drugs for a sick friend to administer to themselves? Might I face a homicide conviction and life imprisonment for ordering tickets to bear a terminally ill relative to Switzerland? At least these questions have forced their way onto the agenda in the discussion of this Bill, but essentially, we have been left none the wiser about how the Crown Office understands and analyses these scenarios. As have the families and friends of people for whom these are not abstract questions of legal principle, but real, flesh and bone decisions to be taken in the midst of great suffering and trauma. That can't be right.
The polling evidence suggests, and has suggested for some time, that our parliamentarians may be out of step with public attitudes. According to research published in the Sunday Herald yesterday, 73% of folk polled sympathised with the general principle of the Bill, though this fell significantly after the commissioners of the poll -- Christian Action Research and Education -- put a series of increasingly gruesome and ghoulish claims and scenarios to people about the alleged impact of introducing the legislation. For opponents of assisted suicide, this is vindication. When the punters hear the evidence and the arguments, their support for the idea bleeds away, they argue.
Be that as it may, the underlying conclusions of this poll echo what we have seen in many others. Their MSPs may be overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of legalising assisting suicides, but the people are more sympathetic -- or at least more open-minded -- to the idea of legislating in this way. Some of the opposition to this Bill is down to implacable, principled objections. To ethics, religion, concern about how, as a society, we choose to make the lives of some people intolerable, worries that dealing death would corrupt the vocation of healthcare professionals, and fears about the various slippery slopes which opponents of assisting suicide fear the nation may skid down. I wouldn't want to underestimate the force of these arguments or the sincerity of individuals, in voting against assisted suicide on their account.
But there is a sneaking suspicion that some MSPs will oppose the legislation for an easier life politically. Anxious to avoid responsibility. Anxious to avoid being caught in the headlights of a well organised, well funded and vocal interest group with another Holyrood election pending. Social conservatives must hate Patrick Harvie anyway. He has nothing to lose. But the same cannot be said for many of his colleagues whose fingers will be hovering over their voting buttons on Wednesday. This isn't exactly an admirable basis to oppose the legislation, but the impulse is an understandable one for all that.
But assuming the Care not Killing talleymen have called it right, and that between two thirds and three quarters of MSPs will reject this Bill, it is back to the drawing board once again for proponents of this legislation. Perhaps a change of strategy is in order? A succession of attempts to guide these proposals and cognate ideas through parliament have foundered on both sides of the border. The objections have frequently been fair, often technical, but ultimately -- these Bills have failed because the simple underlying proposition failed to convince the parliamentary majority. Complaints about the lack of clarity or problems with the safeguards are, and have always been, only pretexts to dump the Bills.
Do campaigners keep plugging away at the idea until its time has come, in the hope and expectation that the majority in the legislature will eventually shift? Or is it time to give up trying to persuade MSPs of the merits of the proposals, and instead, to persuade them that the people should be given a say, via a referendum on the general principle? Perhaps there are neglected litigation strategies -- parallels to the English case-law in Pretty and Nicklinson -- which could be exploited in Scots courts to put pressure on the Crown and to keep the issue on the political agenda?
But with three defeats in as many parliaments, deprived of their most forceful and charismatic advocate in Margo MacDonald, and little progress being made, these questions of strategy and future tactics can't be avoided.