2 December 2010

Margo's Bill goes gently into that good night....

Conscious that I'm pre-empting Mr Patteron's traditional Sunday Whip, I thought it might be helpful to publish just how our MSPs used their free votes yesterday in the first and last stage of this parliament's deliberations on Margo MacDonald's End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. As regular readers will know, I've written many pieces on the proposal's progress, its stops and starts, its rhetoric and reason. One hundred and three parliamentarians voted yesterday, with the vast majority deciding to reject Margo's proposal after a debate which was often thoughtful, generous. Indeed, it was just this quality of the debate which renders the decision fundamentally problematic. If you respect my views, why should yours entirely prevail and my choices be criminalised and punished? Many parliamentarians argued that they were opposing the Bill because of the risk of undue influence, that people may go gently into that good night who do not wish it, at the behest of venal relatives or because of apprehensions about their own burdensomeness. Few of those against the Bill attempted to give some thoroughgoing justification of this paradox. As I understand the argument, it assumes something like the following form.  

We should reject the idea of a monadic individual. People are socially situated. Some folk's ability to choose is likely to be more readily influenced than others. This being so, "vulnerable" categories may be more likely to be induced to end their existences precipitously than more robust fellow citizens. Therefore, in the name of "true" autonomy, truly autonomous individuals, for whom there is no question of "undue influence", should be forced to survive and suffer, or be quietly and slowly killed by advancing opiation. They certainly should not permitted to decide for themselves.

Thinking about the ways in which this reasoning was being deployed in Holyrood yesterday - and the profound contradition that cleaves it in two - I was strongly reminded of this passage in Slavoj Žižek's In Defence of Lost Causes, which I think goes a long way to explaining how so many of our tribunes were able to sustain its tenuous logic:

"What one should bear in mind is that, while every social structure relies on certain exclusions and prohibitions, this exclusionary logic is always redoubled: not only is the subordinated Other (homosexuals, non-white races…) excluded/repressed, the excluding and repressive power itself relies on an excluded/repressed obscene content of its own (say the exercise of power that legitimizes itself as legal, tolerant, Christian…, relies on a set of publicly disavowed obscene rituals of violent humiliation of the subordinated.) More generally, we are dealing here with what one is tempted to call the ideological practice of disidentification. That is to say, one should turn around the standard notion of ideology as providing a firm identification for its subjects, constraining them to their “social roles”: what if, at a different – but no less irrevocable and structurally necessary – level, ideology is effective precisely by way of constructing a space of false disidentification, of false distance towards the actual coordinates of the subject’s social existence?" (Slavoj Žižek In Defence of Lost Causes p.203)

We disagree, you agree that I am entitled to my views, why should you make the decision for each and every one of us? Patrick Harvie noted just this inconsistency in an acute contribution yesterday which it is worth quoting almost in full.

"On the principle of autonomy, the law is of course needed because people sometimes make choices that wider society cannot tolerate, generally because of some harm inflicted on other people. Suicide used to be regarded in that way—not tolerated and not legal—but that is no longer the case. We mourn a suicide. We question ourselves, or at least we should. We question our society about the causes and contributory factors, and we try to improve wellbeing in society. I hope, however, that none of us would want to regard suicide as an offence.

For any person to take control at the end of their own life, on their own terms, may be regretted and grieved over and may be distressing and traumatic for other people, but I cannot see why it should be criminal, even if that person needs to ask for help from someone who is willing to give it in a context of care.

Many people have argued that the law must protect people against the risk that they might feel pressure to make a choice that they do not really want to make or that they would not otherwise make. That is a genuine concern, but let us remember that by rejecting the bill we would leave people in exactly that position. People who wish to make one choice would be told that they may not. They would not be allowed to ask for help; they would certainly not be given it. People who wish to make the choice would be told that they must either go abroad to do it, if they have the money and ability to do so, or must risk criminalising the friends, family or others from whom they seek help.

Does that respect anyone's autonomy? Does that protect people from the pressure that they come under to make a choice that they find intolerable and that they do not wish to make? The risk that someone could come under pressure to end their life prematurely when that is not their preference is very serious and we should not take it lightly, but nor should we take lightly the serious risk, and the reality, that people are under pressure to make the other choice when they would wish to take the option of assisted suicide.

Some people will no doubt continue to travel overseas to make the choice. My final comment is that the absence of any vociferous call for those people to be chased down and prosecuted for travelling overseas for an illegal purpose suggests to me that we do not consider those people to be criminals. We do not consider them to be people who pose a threat to others or wider society. If we did, as for travel overseas for other illegal purposes, we would prosecute them. We do not, so let us stop treating them as criminals."

I very much agree. It is at moments such of these that I lament the relative absence of liberal discourses in Scottish politics and in Scottish Nationalist politics in particular. A substantial disquisition on that is a matter for another day. For now, onto the promised data mentioned at the outset on how individual parliamentarians voted. I was also interested in who missed the vote - whether wedged in a snowdrift, deliberately avoiding placing a view on the record - or other more benign explanations.  As such, I've appended a wee list of those who aren't listed as for, agin or abstaining. Without further ado, our roll call...

For (16)

Margo MacDonald, Christine Grahame (SNP), Robin Harper (Green), Patrick Harvie (Green), Jamie Hepburn (SNP), Bill Kidd (SNP), Richard Lochhead (SNP), Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrat), Ian McKee (SNP), Anne McLaughlin (SNP), John Park (Labour), Jeremy Purvis (Liberal Democrat), Iain Smith (Liberal Democrat), Sandra White (SNP), Bill Wilson (SNP).

Against (85)

Brian Adam (SNP), Baillie Bill Aitken (Tory), Wendy Alexander (Labour), Alasdair Allan (SNP), Jackie Baillie (Labour), Richard Baker (Labour), Sarah Boyack (Labour), Rhona Brankin (Labour), Ted Brocklebank (Tory) Gavin Brown (Tory), Keith Brown (SNP), Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat), Derek Brownlee (Tory), Bill Butler (Labour), Malcolm Chisholm (Labour), Willie Coffey (SNP), Angela Constance (SNP), Cathie Craigie (Labour), Roseanna Cunningham (SNP), Nigel Don (SNP), Bob Doris (SNP), Helen Eadie (Labour), Fergus Ewing (SNP), Linda Fabiani (SNP), Patricia Ferguson (Labour), Ross Finnie (Liberal Democrat), Joe FitzPatrick (SNP), Kenny Gibson (SNP), Rob Gibson (SNP), Karen Gillon (Labour), Marlyn Glen (Labour), Trish Godman (Labour), Annabel Goldie (Tory), Rhoda Grant (Labour), Iain Gray (Labour), Hugh Henry (Labour), Fiona Hyslop (SNP), Adam Ingram (SNP), James Kelly (Labour), Andy Kerr (Labour), Johann Lamont (Labour), Marilyn Livingstone (Labour), Kenny MacAskill (SNP), Lewis Macdonald,(Labour), Ken Macintosh (Labour), Paul Martin (Labour), Tricia Marwick (SNP), Jim Mather (SNP), Michael Matheson, (SNP), Frank McAveety (Labour), Jamie McGrigor (Tory), Alison McInnes (Liberal Democrat), Christina McKelvie (SNP), David McLetchie (Tory), Michael McMahon (Labour), Stuart McMillan (SNP), Duncan McNeil (Labour), Pauline McNeill (Labour), Des McNulty (Labour), Nanette Milne (Tory), Margaret Mitchell (Tory), Alasdair Morgan (SNP), Mary Mulligan (Labour), Elaine Murray (Labour), Alex Neil (SNP), Gil Paterson (SNP), Peter Peacock (Labour), Cathy Peattie (Labour), Mike Pringle (Liberal Democrat), Mike Rumbles (Liberal Democrat), Mike Russell (SNP), Alex Salmond (SNP), Mary Scanlon (Tory), John Scott (Tory), Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat), Richard Simpson (Labour), Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrat), Nicol Stephen (Liberal Democrat), Stewart Stevenson (SNP), David Stewart (Labour), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Dave Thompson (SNP), Maureen Watt (SNP), David Whitton (Labour).

Abstentions (2)

Jackson Carlaw (Tory), Charlie Gordon (Labour).


Claire Baker (Labour), Aileen Campbell (SNP), Bruce Crawford (SNP), Margaret Curran (Labour) Cathy Jamieson (Labour), George Foulkes (Labour), Murdo Fraser (Tory), Christopher Harvie (SNP), Alex Johnstone (Tory), John Lamont (Tory), Stewart Maxwell (SNP), Tom McCabe (Labour), John Farquhar Munro (Liberal Democrat), Hugh O'Donnell (Liberal Democrat), Shona Robison (SNP), Shirley-Anne Somerville (SNP), Jamie Stone (Liberal Democrat), John Swinney (SNP), Jim Tolson (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Welsh (SNP), Karen Whitefield (Labour), Elaine Smith (Labour), John Wilson (SNP), Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat), Jack McConnell (Labour).


  1. Your imagined argument makes no sense at all. It is not a question of people not being allowed to decide for themselves. People decide to kill themselves every single day of the year and in 2009, the last year on record, some 746 individuals did just that.

    Had I been an MSP I would have voted against Margo's bill, not because I question the right of someone to take their own life but because I question the right of someone to expect a doctor or other medical professional to take the responsibility for ending their life.

    Imagine for one second that this Bill was passed and enacted and the option of medically assisted suicide became part of the service offered by the NHS. Then imagine that you are a doctor discussing treatment options with a terminally ill patient. You would be obliged to point out that medically assisted suicide was an option. Then imagine that the patient looked at you and said "So what do you think I should do?"

    That would happen. How do people who support this Bill actually expect a doctor to answer that kind of question? As Nicola Sturgeon pointed out, most people with a terminal illness do not have very definite views about what they would want for themselves at the stage of a terminal illness that the bill would cover. How can anyone advise them, therefore, without influencing them?

  2. The entire point to the Bill was to allow people who do have a point of view to enact that point of view. If they ask "what should I do?" then the should be advised to answer the question themselves.

    If they could not ask "what should I do" through mental incapacity then the Bill would not have applied to them.

    No medical professional would have been compelled to take part in the proposed process.

    There was no technical reason for voting the Bill down at this stage. Only moral ones. And only a few of our MSPs had the courage to state what those morals were. The rest hid behind technicalities.

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  4. I believe that a person's life is theirs to do as they wish - including ending it if that's what they want - and it is not for me or anyone else to tell them what they can or cannot do with it. As a result, my gut reaction is to be in favour of this bill, as I would certainly want to end my life on my terms if I had some terminal disease. Would I want to put someone I love in the position of having to administer some lethal injection or whatever to help me on my way, though? I'd like to think if I ever needed to determine when I died, I would do so when I only just still had the capacity to do so myself (maybe buy a cheap car and go for a long ride off a short cliff), which is already legal. Personally, I think we need more debate about this, which I suppose is reason enough to have allowed this bill into the next stage, where they could still have voted it down.

    So, I'm not entirely sure what I make of the result here. Are MSPs letting their own prejudices and
    religious beliefs get in the way of performing their role as elected representitives of the people? Do they have the election in mind and fear a vote in favour would be more damaigng to re-election chances than a vote against? Or are they mindful that they are representing their constituents rather than themselves and have received more correspondence from those against the bill than from those for it? I'm just not sure. Certainly, my own parents are against it, their opinion being that doctors are currently allowed to apply morphine to kill pain, and if this kills the patient in the process, then the net result is the same, meaning there is no need to change the law. While they're not exactly holy-rollers, they do go to communion every month (or however often it is), so their arguments (dad's especially) are generally peppered with phrases like "if the lord decides...", and indeed, the "against" MSPs include those noted for their religious beliefs. As much as I abhor religion, I find it hard to be completely critical of those voting in line with their church's beliefs, and I think if we want to pass laws like this, we would first need to see the influence of religion removed from politics, which isn't going to happen any time soon. Still, it's a shame that fairy tales hold more sway than cold, hard logic in Holyrood.

    A few things I notice from the results: no Tory MSPs voted in favour, which is no real surprise. Only one Labour MSP, which again is no real surprise, particularly those from Glasgow. Not much favour found amongst the Liberal Democrats, but then we all long since stopped believing either part of their name was actually descriptive of their current ideologies. SNP ministers almost unanimously voted against, which I can sort of understand but also find regrettable. Noteable absentees include Lord Foulkes, Margaret Curran and Cathie Jamieson, all of whom of course have second jobs...

  5. It'll be a cold day in hell before you can restrict Parliamentary debates to "cold, hard logic". I am afraid that is the sort of not very well-considered notion that the religion-haters so often fall into. Think about an example: as a matter of cold hard logic only one of the nationlist and unionist positions can be correct; only one of the pro- and anti-nuclear positions can be correct; only one of the pro- and anti-death penalty positions can be correct. And so on. The day we start on "cold hard logic" is the day democracy dies and we buy a computer - only don't allow any Goverment to let the IT contract! In the present instance it is a long time since suicide was decriminalised in Scotland. If the terminally-ill want autonomy, they should exercise that option and not make anyone else exercise their autonomy for them. That is a contradiction in terms. And while I am at it, the piece on "Reporting Scotland" was quite egregiously awful, as you would have no idea from watching it that the Bill was actually about "assisted" suicide rather than the so-called right of people to kill themselves.

  6. My views are well known on this blog.

    It is my belief that Scotland should incorporated into its new independent constitution some sort of right of a plebiscite initiated from the population to give MPs the roadmap.

    They are hopelessly guddled and lost on the will of most of the populace.

    They have no courage.

  7. This may well be one of those issues such as capital punishment where parliamentary opinion is out of step with popular opinion and perhaps for similar reasons. Very easy to understand why there is a knee jerk, emotional popular reaction in both cases; also very easy to understand why (pace LPW) those who have had to consider it in detail might be loath to divert the resources of the state into giving effect to that reaction.

    On Žižek, delightfully eccentric of LPW to quote him as an explanation of (Holyrood’s) ‘tortuous logic’ rather than as an instance of such. Inasmuch as I can make anything of Z’s point, it’s difficult to imagine any clearer case of ‘a publicly disavowed obscene rituals of violent humiliation of the subordinated’ than the sort of hoop jumping with legal and medical authorities followed by licensed killing envisaged by this Bill, all carried on under the sham title of autonomy.

  8. Am Firinn:

    If the terminally-ill want autonomy, they should exercise that option and not make anyone else exercise their autonomy for them. That is a contradiction in terms.

    My understanding is that the bill would not force doctors to assist suicide, but would merely decriminalise those who did. So if a patient requests it, their doctor could refer them elsewhere, as I believe is currently the case with abortion. Am I mistaken about this?

  9. Many thanks for all of your contributions, they always keep me on my toes!

    Needless to say, I'm not trying to be exhaustive here and outline every argument made for or against or enumerate every objection which one could outline. I accept that my emphasis is selective - and I'm not trying to argue that one cannot approach the rights and wrongs of the issue from a number of perspectives - like Indy. By criticising particular positions, I'm not trying to imply that those are the only arguments we might have.

    Certainly, I think it was a mistake for Margo to pick the name she did for her Bill. Although I've not really discussed the genesis of my views on this topic in depth, the point you are making is an important one Indy. Talking about the autonomy of the patient often obscures that is actually being proposed - which is about empowering health professionals to end the lives of their patients, within the law.

    Just as I'm deeply uncomfortable with the army's military activities - because I'm not convinced by the elision of personal responsibility for dealing death, simply because you are being ordered to do - the same point can be made about doctors administering lethal doses of drugs.

    It is precisely for this reason that for a good many years, I remained decidedly ambivalent about the whole subject, unsure of my position.

  10. In case anyone missed it, Douglas' blog on this subject is worth attending to. His views can be read in full here.

  11. Am Firinn,

    The language of "cold, hard logic" isn't a way of conceiving things that I'd have much sympathy with. Certainly that isn't how I conceive of the difficulties we encounter debating these issues. My reference to logic was intended to evoke precisely the warm, wobbly and ambivalent issues of coherency and emphasis which are implicated here. I do appreciate Asterix's point - which is as ever perspicuous and sparky. In one respect, we might think of it as bearing out Žižek's point - motes and beams.

    Certainly, if you watch Michael Matheson's argument in the debate, he almost shaded into a critique of the constraints the Bill proposed - along the lines you outline, Asterix. In his case, as an opponent of the Bill, he used it as an ad absurdam reason to oppose the legislation. I recall Devil's Kitchen wrote something a good while ago opposing the Bill on the basis that all the hoops and processes constraining decision-making precisely represented a false autonomy.

  12. Actually I was objecting to Doug's use of the phrase "cold, hard logic" and looking back I am sorry it was a bit intemperate.

    Colin is, of course, correct about what the Bill proposes. But whether the medical personnel are forced to comply with the patient's (alleged) wishes or not it is still putting on to them the responsibility of killing someone who didn't see fit to undertake that responsibility him- or herself when he or she could have done so.

  13. What I find worrying about the post-Bill reaction is that a narrative is being created of a somehow inadequate parliament failing to respond to clearly reasonable public opinion. Whilst I appreciate the need for fighting talk in political debate, those of us who care about the future reputation of the Parliament would do well to temper our comments to the reality. Very few jurisdictions allow the sort of killing envisaged by the Bill even though a number have considered it. Anyone who considers the arguments coolly should recognize that the issues are more difficult than public opinion on this issue has acknowledged. At the least, it is therefore no surprise that the Parliament was less enthusiastic about this measure than public opinion: that doesn’t mean that the Parliament is ‘out of touch’ (Douglas); it merely means that people who’ve had to reflect seriously on this difficult issue and have the responsibility of actually introducing it will inevitably be less enthusiastic than people who aren’t in this position.

    For me, this is straightforwardly a case hard argued on both sides, treated with mature consideration by the Parliament, and then brought to a decision. If I had been on the losing side, I would believed that the Parliament was wrong, but I hope I would not have started slagging off my opponents as running a ‘scare tactic campaign’, describing MSPs as ‘patronizing’ (both Douglas) or campaigning organizations with whom I disagreed as making a ‘cheap and unworthy’ contribution (Margo). There is much to be said on both sides in this area, but attributing the loss of an argument to the activity of fools and scoundrels (or crazed religionists for that matter) really shouldn’t be part of that conversation.

  14. Sorry Asterix.

    Just noticed, rather inexplicably, that your last comment had been flagged as "spam" and not appeared here. Not so swiftly amended. Apologies.