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23 December 2010

Scottish Parliament Rejects Euthanasia Bill

The Scottish Parliament voted on Wednesday, 1 December, to throw out the End of Life Assistance ( Scotland) Bill which proposed to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia in Scotland. Margo MacDonald MSP introduced the Bill in February after having conducted an extensive publicity drive in support of her proposal. This included a BBC Panorama episode on the issue and a 'fact finding' trip to Dignitas in Zurich.

The Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the Bill by 85 votes to 16 votes with 2 abstentions. In November the Committee which looked at the Bill also rejected it by 5 votes to 1 vote. The Committee described the Bill as having an "extraordinarily wide" scope.

The Bill would have allowed tens of thousands of Scots to gain assistance to end their lives either through assisted suicide or by active euthanasia. It applied to people with terminal illnesses and also to those who were incapacitated to such an extent as not to be able to live life independently and who found life to be 'intolerable'. Such a loose definition was particularly problematic.  

The Bill contained no conscience clause to protect health professionals, applied to people aged over 16, and required that the end of life assistance was given within 30 days of completion of the application process. This led to fears of a conveyor belt process. There were real concerns over the inadequacy of the so-called safeguards and fears that many vulnerable people would feel pressurised into ending their lives prematurely in order not to be a burden to family or friends.

Evangelical Alliance is a member of the Care Not Killing alliance (CNK). CNK campaigned against the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill presenting 21,000 postcards, which people completed to express their opposition to the Bill, to the Scottish Parliament. During her speech, Margo MacDonald attacked CNK for its campaign. She also has suggested that MSPs who voted against her End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill were unduly influenced by the churches and religious people.

It is of no surprise that Christians, and those of other faiths, oppose the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide. This is an issue which unites people across the normal theological divisions. However, it is an issue which goes beyond ethics derived from specific religious traditions and unites all people who have a shared moral duty derived from our common humanity. It can be summed up as a feeling that we have a duty to protect the wider public good from the demands of those who adhere to a radically self-focused view of personal autonomy. Hence many of the MSPs who voted against the Bill, although coming from no strong personal faith perspective, did so in good conscience because they felt that their primary duty was to protect the vulnerable from risk of exploitation and the pressure to end life prematurely as a result of feeling burdensome to family and friends.

From a Christian perspective this shared sense of moral duty can be explained in terms of natural law or the implications for society of natural revelation, depending upon one's theological tradition. Human beings are created in the image of God. At one level this entails a spiritual dimension as intrinsic to the nature of the human person. However, it also implies recognition that certain underlying principles apply to temporal human existence - the pursuit of 'the good' as the purpose of life; civil authority and the rule of law being necessary for human society to flourish; that community is intrinsic to our existence; the complementarity of male and female in marriage and that it is wrong for an individual to take human life. It is a natural moral law which applies universally to all people, whether religious or not, and in all generations. Indeed this 'natural morality' was recognised by Immanuel Kant whose own life journey involved rejection of his religious upbringing and who saw this morality as being motivated by a sense of duty rather than by love.

It is precisely such a natural morality which motivated most of the MSPs to vote against Margo's Bill. This morality is set aside by those 'radical individualists' who seek to control all aspects of life, including the timing and nature of their own death. In so doing, they are in essence saying "I am the one who has the power to determine good from evil with the right to overturn natural morality and assert myself as the ultimate judge of my life". It is an expression of original sin and pride. Such self-idolatry appeals to the relativism of post-modern society, but ultimately proves to be an empty boast with no power to conquer death but only to manage its physiological aspects. In contrast, the Christian Gospel proclaims God's active intervention in human society first in creation, then in giving the law, and finally to complete the law through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ who establishes a Kingdom characterised by a more profound level of morality and a community of love. In so doing, death is overcome and a firm hope is offered of life eternal in which there is no more suffering or pain. That is the real meaning of Christmas.   

Dr Gordon Macdonald is Parliamentary Officer for CARE for Scotland and Policy Officer for Care Not Killing Scotland.