Orcadian Column, 22 June 2021


Being applauded from the pitch during a match against Westray is dreamland territory for any Sanday footballer. As I found on Sunday, however, when you’re strapped to a stretcher and the clapping is more in sympathy, those dreams rather turn to ashes.

Being applauded from the pitch during a match against Westray is dreamland territory for any Sanday footballer. As I found on Sunday, however, when you’re strapped to a stretcher and the clapping is more in sympathy, those dreams rather turn to ashes.

Ordinarily a 4-2 win over our North Isles rivals would have them dancing in the streets of Kettletoft. Not so on this occasion as thoughts and conversation inevitably focused on the serious leg breaks suffered by two Sanday teammates, Michael Moodie and Aaran Walker. By the end of the game, most of the players looked shell-shocked and football seemed rather incidental.

Whatever happens in the return leg next weekend, there will be a collective desire to see Michael and Arran make a full and speedy recovery.

Even before the game, the day out in Sanday had felt somewhat surreal as I undertook a series of media interviews.  Sky News even recorded me live from George and Norma Brown’s living room, kitted out in my Sanday FC training top.

This was not a newfound mainstream media interest in the Parish Cup, even a tie as eagerly-anticipated as the clash of the North Isles footballing heavyweights. Instead, it was a response to confirmation on Sunday morning that I would be bringing forward proposals this week for a members bill on assisted dying.

The bill would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, a change consistently supported by a sizeable majority of the Scottish public. That support, I believe, reflects a growing realisation, often brought about by painful personal experience, that the current blanket ban on such assistance is unjust and can prove inhumane.

The fact is too many Scots are forced to endure a protracted and undignified death, often in agony, despite the very best of palliative care. They and their families deserve greater compassion, choice and dignity in death. That is what my bill will seek to offer.

It draws on lessons learned from previous unsuccessful Holyrood bills in 2010 and 2015, but also reflects international experience. We now have evidence of laws on assisted dying working safely and successfully in places like the US, Canada and Australia, with New Zealand and Ireland set to follow suit. 

As well as being more restricted than previous Holyrood bills, applying only to adults with a terminal diagnosis, my bill builds in a range of safeguards. The diagnosis would need to be made by two separate doctors, one with no prior connection to the patient. They would also need to satisfy themselves about mental competence and that the decision to seek assistance was not the result of undue pressure.

Ultimately, though, this is about making the choices at the end of life more transparent, thereby providing greater protection as well as compassion. At present, decisions over withdrawal of treatment can be opaque, while many individuals take matters into their own hands, sometimes ending their lives sooner than necessary and in ways that can be profoundly distressing.

Those critical of the proposals argue that this amounts to assisted suicide and poses a threat to those with a disability. Neither assertion is true as only those with a terminal illness and mental capacity would be eligible.  Meantime, doctors and other healthcare professionals would be free to opt out on the basis of conscience, if they so wish.

Nor is assisted dying an alternative to palliative care.  Rather it goes hand in hand with good and improved end of life care, providing another option for those who have reached the limit that care.

While I firmly believe a change in the law is needed, I recognise the complexities and sensitivities involved. That is why it is so important these proposals are consulted on widely with contributions from those with a range of views and perspectives. Thereafter, any bill will require robust and detailed scrutiny by parliament. I am confident this will happen.

The public in Scotland has long supported a change in the law on assisted dying. Finally, the political mood at Holyrood appears to have caught up. This is now the right bill, at the right time and I look forward to piloting it through parliament over the months ahead.


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