Purvis plea sidelined as MSPs vote down right-to-die bill

THE majority of Borders MSPs last week supported a bid to make Scotland the first part of the UK to legalise assisted suicide.

Among them was Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale’s Jeremy Purvis (Lib Dem) who courted controversy in 2005 when he launched his own Dying with Dignity Bill.

However, the latest bill failed to win the backing of enough MSPs from across the political spectrum to be debated at Holyrood.

Mr Purvis, who revealed in The Southern in 2008 that he received a death threat for trying the change the law, has since spoken out on behalf of independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

But last Wednesday, Ms MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance Bill was roundly defeated at Holyrood by 85 votes to 16, with two abstentions.

In a free vote, Mr Purvis was joined by South of Scotland list MSPs Christine Grahame (SNP) and Jim Hume (Lib Dem) in voting for the legislation.

Those who opposed it included Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP John Lamont and his fellow Tory, list member, Derek Brownlee.

The proposals called for anyone aged over 16, diagnosed as terminally ill and finding life intolerable, to be able to request help to die.

The bill was opposed by First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy, health secretary Nicola Sturgeon. Ms Sturgeon said: “I find myself particularly and fundamentally concerned about the difficulty I think would always and inevitably be present in determining that someone choosing to end their life had not been subjected to undue influence.”

Labour’s Michael McMahon, convener of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party groups on palliative care and disability, claimed the proposals were “dangerous and unnecessary”.

“Society needs to know that you can’t have both physician-assisted suicide and palliative care. In reality you cannot have one or the other,” he added.

During the debate, Mr Purvis said: “Those who use the argument for the sanctity of life against this bill cannot support abortion in any circumstances and can support no deviation from the argument.

“So they oppose this bill, but they allow the courts to continue to have the right the end people’s lives if they are mentally incapable and living on hydration and nutrition alone.

“I regret the use by some of an absolute position to suit their argument when they often seem to be more relaxed about other matters.

“One faith in Scotland took an absolutist view to oppose categorically the use of condoms, but now that argument is not so absolutist after all.”

He noted that the leader of the Church of Scotland, the Rev John Christie, opposed the bill, but recalled that one of the moderator’s predecessors – Dr Alison Elliot – had said of Mr Purvis’s original proposals: “There may be examples where the tension between life as a gift from God and the belief that God does not want people to suffer, becomes so unbearable that it leads to re-examination of the question. I don’t believe that God wills people to suffer.’

Mr Purvis said hundreds of people had been in touch with him on this issue, including a constituent whose mother had suffered a brain haemorrhage in April. The hospital consultant made the decision the woman’s life would come to an end because she would not survive the brain injury, but the family sat at her bedside for a further five “heartbreaking” days as she starved and dehydrated to her death.

“This was the most distressing part,” wrote the constituent. “The doctors claimed she was not feeling pain, but how could they guarantee this?”

Mr Purvis: “The letter encapsulates so much of my own thoughts. I believe when we are dying, the principal question is what control we have over the precise timing, location and circumstance of our passing.

“I would like the law to allow me the greater right, even if I choose not to use it. I would not like someone who may not have the same faith views as me to deny me that right.”

After the vote, Mr Lamont said: “I have had hundreds of letters and emails from constituents about the bill, some supporting it, but many more expressing concern about the implications such a move would have on our society.

“Personally, I have great difficulty with the idea of people choosing to end their life. There would be great difficulty in ensuring those in a position of making this choice were not subject to undue influence.

“To create legislation of this type would have sent a message that it is okay to decide to end someone’s life. I think that would set a dangerous precedent.

“This is a victory for common sense which will protect many people who find themselves in a vulnerable position.”

Ms MacDonald praised the MSPs who supported the bill, claiming they had withstood “extraordinary pressure”.

She pledged to pursue the issue: “If I stand next time and if I’m elected, people will know without a doubt that I’m going to pursue the idea and I’ll surely be able to say that there is some sort of mandate implicit in that.”