Orcadian Column, 28 March 2024

28 Mar 2024

I can’t recall being at the centre of a media scrum before, but with my bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults being formally introduced to parliament this week, I have my metaphorical gumshield and scrum cap at the ready.

The bill has been a long time in the preparation, as is fitting for a proposed change in the law on such a sensitive issue, which divides opinion and where views are deeply held and passionately argued. Even so, it’s a change that has consistently enjoyed overwhelming public support over the years. Indeed, one of the most comprehensive polls ever undertaken showed this week that in every parliamentary constituency across the UK, a majority of voters believe dying people should have the choice of an assisted death.

To date, it has been parliamentarians who have been slow to catch up, but the political mood and momentum are definitely shifting. As well as my bill at Holyrood, we’re seeing legislation taken forward in Jersey and the Isle of Man. At Westminster too, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have committed to a meaningful vote on the issue after the upcoming general election. Meanwhile, Ireland and France too are making moves to amend their own laws in this area.

So long overdue change is coming, and it can’t come too soon. At present, in Scotland, too many dying people are being failed by a ban on assisted dying that can leave them facing a difficult, undignified and sometimes painful death, despite the very best efforts of palliative care. More investment in such care if certainly required, not least to improve access, but we know that in some cases it is insufficient and that greater choice and control is needed by dying patients at the end of life.

As more states and countries around the world introduce laws of this kind, there’s growing evidence showing how this can be achieved safely and successfully. Indeed, a recent inquiry by the Commons Health Committee found that assisted dying laws invariably coincide with improvements in palliative care and where a terminal illness model is adopted, there have been no examples of eligibility criteria expanding over time.

Quite rightly, personal stories continue to shape the debate, vividly illustrating the horrendous position some dying people find themselves in and the trauma suffered both by them and those they leave behind. The latter have spearheaded the campaign calling for change; demanding politicians act. As one campaigner told me recently, everyone is one bad death away from supporting assisted dying.

Increasingly, MSPs bring their own personal experiences, which is helping move the political debate. That debate needs to be robust but also respectful, and any law should be framed to meet Scottish circumstances. I am in no doubt, however, that once we pass this law, as surely we must, we will wonder why on earth it took us so long.

Ahead of such a busy week, it was a joy to attend a series of events back in Orkney celebrating success and achievement, as well as giving thanks. First up was the Orkney Youth Awards on Thursday, showcasing the astonishing contribution made by our young people who volunteer, raise funds and help support such a wide variety of good causes locally. I had the privilege again of offering some closing remarks at an event which is full of energy, positivity and inspiration.

Much the same could be said of the NHS Team Orkney Awards the following evening, which recognised individuals and teams across our health service who go above and beyond in providing care and support to patients, fellow staff and our wider community. Spending time in the entertaining company of the long service nominees just put the seal on a very fine evening for me.

And so to Sunday, and the service of thanksgiving honouring 200 years of the RNLI, an organisation that holds a special place in the affections and admiration of our island community. The bravery of these volunteer lifesavers is humbling, so it was good to have the chance to say a heartfelt thanks to the crews and those who fundraise to support them. Ordinary folk, doing truly extraordinary things.