7 September 2010

Oral evidence begins on assisted dying...

Largely unheralded, this morning Holyrood's ad hoc End of Life Assistance Committee will begin taking oral evidence. I've previously excerpted and summarised some of the poignant written submissions  they received during the earlier, paper process. Today they will begin hearing from at least twelve separate panels with sessions scheduled from now until the beginning of October. The process promises to be fascinating. Cited witnesses are drawn from a dizzying array of interested groups and specialist forms of knowledge. I've asked before if a real debate on physician assisted suicide is possible. The list of witnesses, of itself, speaks to the astonishingly diverse beliefs that are being brought to bear on Margo's proposals, including religiously and godlessly founded beliefs about the value of human life, the role of law and the state, on disability equality and the liberty of the subject, the ethics of the medical professions and the rights of individuals. The parliament in general and the committee in particular have a task of Herculean subtlety and open-mindedness before them. 

The oral sessions will draw to a close with the  appearance of the Bill's primary sponsor Margo MacDonald. Preceding her will have been the Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini; professors of law and medical ethics from the Netherlands, the American state of Oregan and  from Switzerland; domestic scholars including Prof Sheila McLean. Physicians specialising in palliative care will sit alongside groups concerned with the rights of disabled people. Representatives from Care not Killing will debate with others from Dignity in Dying. Various religious-interest figures will also make appearances, including the Reverend Dr Donald MacDonald of the Free Church of Scotland, Reverend Ian Galloway from the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, Dr Bill Reid from the Methodists, John Deighan of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Dr Salah Beltagui from the Muslim Council of Scotland, Leah Granat for the Council of Jewish Communities and John Bishop from the Humanist Society of Scotland. Today, amongst others, the Committee will be hearing from Lord MacKay of Clashfern, lately spotted in the headlines on account of that Bible in Scots Law pamphlet. In 2004-05, MacKay chaired a House of Lord select committee on a similar legislative effort mounted by Lord Joffee. Today MacKay will not agitating for piety in the law, I understand, but will rather be speaking to this process. The first round of papers before the committee can be read here. I note, merely for clarity, that MacKay's papers make extensive reference to a memorandum from the Attorney General, which in its own terms, attempts to elucidate:

"The current statutory position in the UK in respect of attempted suicide, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia"

It is worth emphasising two points. Firstly, the memorandum enumerates the criminal law of England and Wales, rather than Scotland. In particular, the Suicide Act 1961 does not extend to Scotland. I'm left mildly astonished that the section of the Attorney General's paper quoted so blithely fails to recognise the different jurisdictions that operate "in the UK". Scottish distinctiveness is not mentioned once. This is not chippiness on my part. An exceedingly inaccurate impression is imparted by the text. Any idling Scottish parliamentarian who passes this way would do well to take note. What's more, in addition to giving evidence, the Humanist Society of Scotland have now embarked on a campaign called "Let me choose", agitating in support of MacDonald's Bill, arguing that:

"We want to see this Bill passed into law because it provides a choice for those people who seek to end their lives with dignity and the protection of the law."

Their website also includes mechanisms for adding your name to a petition and sending supportive e-mails to your MSPs. How the debate is framed during this Committee phase will be crucial.  The corpus of the written responses speak to the vehement commitment of those opposing this reform. Those of us who are in favour should not be idle.

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