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Assisted Suicide in Scotland

Kevin McKenna offers a spirited critique ( of Margo MacDonald’s bill on assisted suicide, proposed recently to the Scottish Parliament.

 Behind the rhetorical references to the ‘culture of death’ MacDonald is seeking to introduce in Scotland, and her ‘deathly obsession’, there are some old arguments, which remain as weak as ever.

The bill  aims to allow ‘people with terminal or life-shortening illnesses or progressive conditions which are terminal or life-shortening and who wish to end their own lives to obtain assistance in doing so’: McKenna’s first point is that the bill assumes that life must be intolerable or not worth living for people with such conditions. It’s clear that this isn’t so. The bill is designed to help those who wish to end their own lives, and they may well constitute a minority of those with the conditions in question. McKenna then raises the issue of the suicidally depressed. In itself this is irrelevant, since the bill doesn’t concern itself with them. Nor is there a plausible slippery slope argument in the offing here, since the bill permits assisted suicide only in cases of genuine informed consent, and it is plausibly thought that the suicidally depressed are in most cases not competent to provide such consent.

McKenna urges MacDonald, rather than promoting assisted suicide, to campaign for better palliative care in Scotland.  But there seems no reason why she shouldn’t do both. I myself would much prefer end-of-life care which included the best palliative care alongside the possibility of assisted suicide should I wish it. Indeed it seems to me rather odd to call keeping alive a terminally ill person, in great pain, against their will either ‘palliative’ or a form of ‘care’. 

Another slippery slope argument appears towards the end of McKenna’s piece. Wouldn’t such a bill make it more likely that the elderly, sick, or infirm would be made to feel themselves a burden on others, and under pressure to seek assisted suicide? This argument again ignores the provisions on informed consent. Assisted suicide in cases where pressure had been detected would not be permissible. Of course, there might be some cases in which such pressure went undetected. But the state can go only so far in protecting individuals from making unwise or non-autonomous decisions, especially when that protection would have the result that others may be forced to suffer severe pain or indignity against their will. 

What really lies behind McKenna’s position is, as so often in this debate, religion. His critique ends as follows: ‘The last days of a human life are sacred and anointed and must remain free from those who will always exploit legislation to end it before its allotted time’. 

Assisted suicide, then, is forbidden by God. One obvious question here is of course epistemological. Many theists will disagree with McKenna, and will be able to provide as much scriptural authority for their view as he can for his. But there seems to me an independent problem, internal to his position. God is perfectly benevolent. If so, then how could it be the case that God would require any individual to experience severe suffering against their will, to no apparently good end?

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Quite agree – McKenna’s was a surprisingly subjective and emotively-written piece. Can’t believe the Guardian would air it, but presumably it’s offering up all sides of a sensitive argument. No doubt the comments will be worth reading.

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