Is assisted dying legal in Scotland?
The Health Secretary has recently requested data on the numbers of Britons who have travelled to Dignitas, in Switzerland, to end their life following a terminal illness diagnosis. The figures are likely to inform part of a new debate on legalising doctor-assisted dying in the UK.
Assisted suicide is currently illegal in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, with doctors facing up to 14 years in prison if they are found guilty. In order to avoid the potential criminal prosecution of medical staff or family members, some terminally ill individuals travel to Dignitas. Since 1998, it is thought around 475 British citizens have travelled to Dignitas to end their life.
In certain countries, under certain circumstances, assisted dying is legal. New Zealand will be the latest country to legalise euthanasia for the terminally ill, following a referendum in October 2020.
Should it go before to the Scottish Parliament, this will be MSP’s third vote on the matter. MSP’s previously voted overwhelmingly against its introduction, initiated by the late Margo MacDonald, in 2010 and 2015.
It seems now though that attitudes have changed since the 2015 vote.
The British Medical Association has found shifting attitudes among medical workers too, with 61% supporting a change to the law. Furthermore, in Scotland, a recent poll shows 76% of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to debate legalising doctor-assisted dying.
Even if the Scottish Parliament were to vote in its favour, it is most likely that it would still be some time before it became a legal option. So what options are available under current laws in terms of end of life care and treatment?
End of life care and decisions surrounding it is not always something we wish to think about, however, it is often the case that when decisions regarding end of life care have to be made, the individual is too ill to communicate or express their wishes.
Unfortunately, end of life situations can happen to anyone at any age and it is therefore important to plan ahead. One way to ensure your wishes are documented is by creating a Living Will, also known as an advance decision or advance medical directive.
A Living Will can be used to record your views on life sustaining medical treatment in the event you should suffer an incurable or irreversible illness and are unable to make decisions regarding your medical treatment. A Living Will can however only be used to refuse specific treatments, such as ventilation or invasive procedures, and cannot be used to request treatment.
It is important to note that Living Wills are not legally binding in Scotland but they provide guidance to your family and healthcare team about how you would wish to be treated, particularly when you can no longer communicate those wishes. It can help to provide peace of mind to both you and your loved ones at what is already a very difficult and emotional time.
Anyone over the age of 16 can make a Living Will as long as they understand its purpose and effects. A copy should be given to your family, doctor and solicitor.
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If you would like to know more about how to update or change your Will, or you do not currently hold a Will and would like further information on how to make one, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our private client team.
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