The Scottish Parliament is to consider legislation aiming to give terminally ill or severely disabled people the right to die.
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who has Parkinson’s disease, introduced the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill today to make it legal for someone to seek help from a doctor to end their life.
Assisting is currently illegal in Scotland.
The bill would go further than in England, where the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines last September on when legal proceedings could result from an assisted suicide.
The guidance states that prosecutions would be less likely when the victim had a “terminal illness, severe disability or degenerative condition where there was no possibility of recovery” or the assistant was a close friend or relative in the context of a supportive relationship.
MacDonald, who is the member for Lothian, introduced her bill after public consultation.
It stipulates that terminally-ill people who find life intolerable or those who are so permanently physically incapacitated that they cannot live independently and find life intolerable should be able to seek help from a doctor to end their lives.
Safeguards include the need for two formal requests, the first of which would have to be signed by two independent witnesses and both of which would have to be signed off by the “approved medical practitioner”.
It is a requirement of the bill that a psychiatrist meets the applicant after both requests.
The bill will be examined first by the health committee at Holyrood with a report thought likely before the summer recess. A full debate is unlikely until this autumn. MSPs will receive a free vote on the issue.
However, the bill was lambasted by the Care Not Killing Alliance, which represents a number of pro-life and disability organisations and palliative care practitioners.
Campaign director Dr Peter Saunders questioned MacDonald’s estimates that 50 people would die a year under the legislation, on the basis that experience from other countries had shown it would account for one in every 2,000 deaths.
However, he claimed that the assessment of similar legislation in 2005 by a House of Lords committee had found that it accounted for one in 38 deaths, which would translate into 1,500 deaths a year in Scotland.
He added: “The Scottish public and Parliament would be well advised to approach her bill with great caution and in knowledge of the facts rather than the spin”
However Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which supports the bill, said: “People want choice and control at the end of life. Without a safeguarded law regulating choice over how and when we die, many people will take matters into their own hands.
“This problem must be addressed, otherwise we are in effect condoning people travelling abroad to die, ‘mercy killings’ and suicides behind closed doors. We commend Margo MacDonald for reigniting this debate in Scotland, and for seeking a compassionate way forward.”