Assisted Dying in Scotland: Reflections from the coalface

By Amanda Ward.

The day the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill 2015 fell, I left the chamber with Patrick Harvie, did a few short press interviews and went to the pub. Everyone who had fought for this change was there, and we all felt bloodied and bruised – utterly scunnered that the oppositions scaremongering had prevailed. But worse than that was the gut-wrenching guilt for all those people who had written to us describing the pain, indignity, suffering and plight of terminal illness. Now, they had no way out.

I took the train home with my old professor and was collected by my husband. It had been one of the longest days of my life and I sobbed like a child when I got in the car. Partly from exhaustion over the last 12 months of driving this beast forward, often feeling demoralised by the oppositions ‘pro killing’ rhetoric. But mostly I was heartbroken for all those people who had lived in hope that this thing would pass. What would they do now, where would they turn – I knew the answers to these questions, and it was too much to bare. Dignitas in Switzerland for some, suicide for others, suffering in the extreme for most. 

I was at the coalface of this law and I met some characters along the way, those with extremists’ views on both sides, but the vast majority were there because they wanted to help shape a society that has compassion, justice and equity at its heart. 

We have a relatively young Scottish parliament – hundreds of years in the making, only twenty in our own right. The laws that are passed now, will be the ones that shape our society going forward. They must include laws that protect vulnerable people, support those who need our care, and give choice to those whose final chapter will be wracked with pain, indignity and suffering. 

The next assisted dying bill will be presented in session six, when we have a new set of elected representatives. The campaign for assisted dying in Scotland is now better organised, resourced and with a wealth of empirical knowledge from countries who have changed the law – all aspects missing in 2015. 

If there were ever a time for this law to pass, it is now when we are banded together by Covid-19 in the fight against our own mortality. Pre Covid, our citizens were already needlessly dying bad deaths, these people have not gone away, and we must continue to fight for their right to a peaceful death. 

When Margo MacDonald MSP introduced her 2010 Bill she said:

We, the Parliament, represent the wishes, beliefs, hopes and determination of our fellow countrymen and women…we are doing something today that Parliaments are meant to do: trying to find an honourable, fair and equitable solution to a problem…we are meeting a challenging situation head on and doing so in a manner that reflects well on the inherent democracy that exemplifies Scotland.

In May 2021, our new cohort of MSPs will have an opportunity to show the world that Scotland is a country which doesn’t turn a blind eye to suffering, but instead confronts it boldly and builds choice and compassion into the fabric of our society. We must not be on the wrong side of history – let Scotland shine like the beacon that is New Zealand, Canada and other progressive countries who have changed the law.