Assisted dying: Could new Scottish bill bring legal suicide to the UK?

A recent poll shows that over three-quarters of Scots support the legislation

Albert Toth
Friday 29 March 2024 07:52 GMT
Esther Rantzen makes assisted dying plea during phone call with Keir Starmer

A bill has been introduced to Scottish Parliament that would allow terminally ill adults in Scotland to be provided with assistance to end their own life.

If passed, the bill would make Scotland the first country in the UK to permit assisted dying to its residents.

The Assisted Dying Bill has been drafted by Lib Dem MSP Liam McArther who says current laws around assisted dying are “failing too many terminally ill Scots at the end of life.”

“We can and must do better. That is why I am publishing my bill on assisted dying.”

Prue Leith meets with Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur at event to support assisted dying (Getty Images)

Dame Esther Rantzen has praised the “historic” legislation. The TV presenter, who has stage four lung cancer, announced in December she had joined Swiss assisted dying organisation Dignitas.

“I have received dozens of letters from people describing the agonising deaths of those they loved,” she said.

“This is literally a life and death issue, and I believe terminally ill patients like me need and deserve the right to choose this option if our lives become intolerable.”

Under current legislation, it is illegal in all four UK countries to assist in the suicide of another person. The law is slightly different between nations, but doing so will generally constitute serious offences ranging from manslaughter to murder.

Currently, it is estimated one British adult travels to Switzerland every eight days to access assisted dying support from Dignitas.

However, doing so is expensive and complicated. After travel costs and Dignitas’ fees, travelling to Switzerland for assisted dying can cost upwards of £10,000, according to UK charity Dying with Diginity.

Is it likely the assisted dying bill will be passed?

Two previous attemps to pass similar bills in Holyrood have been unsuccessful, but Mr McArthur claims public support is now “overwhelming”.

“I believe we are now seeing the necessary political support, across all parties, to deliver this long overdue reform,” he wrote.

Dame Esther Rantzen has said she supports assisted dying in the UK (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

A recent poll showed that over three-quarters (78 per cent) of Scottish people are in favour of assisted dying legislation. In 2023, UK membership of Dignitas grew to 1,900 – a 24 per cent rise.

Crucially, although Humza Yousaf, the First Minister, and Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, have indicated they are not convinced by the new legislation, MSPs are expected to be given a free vote on the bill.

This means that, when the bill is voted on in autumn, leaders of Holyrood’s political parties will not tell their members which way to vote.

Will the bill allow people from other UK countries to access assisted dying?

If the bill is passed in Scottish Parliament, it would allow people from surrounding countries to travel to Scotland to access assisted dying. However, there are several conditions laid out.

Importantly, anyone wishing to receive assistance to end their own life in Scotland will have to have lived in the country for at least 12 months ‘ordinarily’. This means it is their country of residence, with only normal absences like holidays or business trips.

This would be the biggest barrier to otherwise eligible adults. No such condition exists in Switzerland, so those who wish to end their lives within 12 months – and can afford the cost – may still choose to travel to Dignitas.

Speaking last year, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that he plans to give MPs a free vote on assisted dying in the UK if he becomes Prime Minister. In 2015, the north London MP backed a bill to legalise assisted dying which members voted down.

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