Why I voted for the Assisted Suicide Bill

Logo of "My Life, My Death, My Choice," the campaign for the Assisted Suicide Bill.Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, which had originally been brought by our much-missed colleague Margo MacDonald and was taken on by Green MSP Patrick Harvie after she died last year. After much thought, I voted in favour of the bill, but it was defeated by 82 votes to 36 (you can find out how your other MSPs voted here).

I am very grateful to the many constituents who have contacted me about assisted suicide over the past months, both in support of and in opposition to the Bill. This is an extremely personal issue and many of those who have been in touch have been directly affected by difficult end-of-life situations. I considered my vote very carefully, and the views and experiences of everyone who has been in touch have been invaluable.

My own personal experience is of an elderly family member who, I know, suffered beyond human endurance and was longing to be relieved of pain. She was in a hospice in the last few days of her life, living from one shot of morphine to the next. There was nothing more that could be done for her, and I have never forgotten how I felt so completely useless; she was ready to die and no-one would, or could, let her.

If I was in a similar position, I would have sought help to end my life. I find it very hard to justify a situation where that help is withheld from people who desperately need it.

As Margo MacDonald herself said, we have learned a great deal about how to create the right safeguards since she first presented the Bill in 2010. The revised bill had very robust measures to ensure patients would get proper medical advice and could not be pressured into a decision by family.

Under Margo and Patrick’s proposals, the individual would have had to gain the consent of two separate doctors. Nurses and doctors who had been previously involved in the individuals’ care would also be excluded from the process of witnessing any declarations required in the process. Family members, and anyone who would benefit financially from the individual’s will, would also have been excluded from acting in the process.

I believe that these measures would prevent individuals from being pressurised by others and would ensure that the choice lies with the individual, and the individual alone.

For all these reasons, I believe legalising assistance to die remains the just and compassionate thing to do.

With a majority of Scots in favour of change, clearly we still have a lot to discuss. I had hoped that MSPs who had reservations might voted to allow the deliberations on the bill to continue, even if they expected to vote against it in the end. But although this particular bill won’t go any further, I would be very surprised if it’s the last time the issue comes before the Scottish Parliament.

You can watch the debate and read my speech below. My contribution begins at 2:22:40 on the video, and the transcript of the full debate is available on the Scottish Parliament website.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

This Parliament has never shirked its responsibility in dealing with a number of controversial subjects that have brought about societal change. In bringing them to this chamber we hear many differing and often strong opinions, which inform and allow for the best kind of debate. As other members have done, I thank the many individuals, organisations and groups who took the time to articulate their reasons for offering their support for or objections to the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.

I will support the motion today for various reasons. I have listened to the different contributions to this debate, all of which have been very considered and many of which have been quite powerful. My instinct is that there should be a bill of this nature. I must set aside my reasons for that and join with those who are asking for the bill to be passed, even though their instinct is that it should not, or that it should not come into law.

Agreeing the general principles of the bill today will allow for greater debate and perhaps for more public involvement in what is, for most of us, an issue about which we feel strongly. It is really not an issue that we can be uncertain about in the end, as it were, if you will excuse the pun, Presiding Officer.

My main reasons for supporting the bill are, first, for the want of choice and fairness, secondly, as an act of human kindness and compassion, and thirdly, out of respect for any individual and his or her needs and beliefs. I, too, spoke to Margo MacDonald at some length about her bill, and I am pleased to have heard her name checked so often today, because she is synonymous with the bill and her desire was to see it become law.

To an extent, the bill as drafted may still be far from perfect, and what is clear from the Health and Sport Committee report is that there are still many questions to be answered and many details to be clearly articulated and understood by everyone. On such an important issue, the devil really will be in the detail. However, I believe that all of that can and should happen.

The right of an individual to be released from life at their own request should be acknowledged as their choice, and they should be supported. It would appear that the majority of people in Scotland, if we are to believe recent reports in journals and newspapers, now broadly agree that it is a matter of choice.

Scotland has an ageing population, many of whom will suffer degenerative conditions. The debate about the quality of life and how we can live it will continue for years to come. Meantime, anyone who out of compassion and love wants to help a friend or relative to die will remain open to prosecution, and inevitably more and more people who can afford to do so will travel abroad in order to have their wishes met. That cannot be right.

I acknowledge the views of those who are of a religious faith — I am not — and they do appear, judging by my mailbox, to be the largest group opposing the bill. They have their reasons for doing so, and I can respect that. They would never consider using the permissions that the bill would allow, and that is their right, but I would ask that they respect those of a different belief. It would be very wrong if the bill were to fail today on any religious grounds.

The problem will not go away, but rather will increase, and therefore the bill is timely. There is a strong feeling across the country, I believe, that recognises that and supports the generality of the bill.

Every contribution in the chamber today has been interesting, thoughtful and considered, and the Parliament is surely here to allow the debate to continue and not to shut it down prematurely. Please, let us not shut down this important debate. I urge members to support the motion.

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Jean condemns Carmichael

Jean has this afternoon condemned Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael for failing to admit to his responsibility for the now infamous leaked ‘memo’ which falsely accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of favouring David Cameron to be Prime Minister.

The false memo was leaked following a meeting between the Scottish First Minister and the French Ambassador. Both Ms Sturgeon and the Ambassador rejected the memo’s version of events, which said Ms Sturgeon would prefer a government led by David Cameron and stated that she did not think Ed Milliband was ‘of prime minister material’.

The memo was later found to have been leaked by the Scottish Office during the election campaign – when the Government was in purdah. Speaking at the time, the then-Scottish Secretary Mr Carmichael dismissed the leak, saying ‘These things happen from time to time.’

His admission this afternoon comes after an official Cabinet Office inquiry found that Mr Carmichael’s adviser leaked the document under direction from the Scottish Secretary.

Speaking from Shetland following Mr Carmichael’s statement, in which he described the matter as an ‘error of judgement’, Jean said:

“Mr Carmichael’s actions go far beyond a simple ‘error of judgement’ – this was a calculated and deeply cynical attempt to undermine the integrity of Scotland’s First Minister during the election campaign.

It was a deliberate attack on a fellow politician and this incident seriously calls into question Mr Carmichael’s fitness to continue as MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Politics is all about best judgement and integrity, and he has failed his constituents on both counts – by leaking the memo in the first place, and then by delaying his admission of guilt until after the election. Mr Carmichael is the Liberal Democrats’ ‘last man standing’ in Scotland – but only as a result of intentionally deceiving them about his role in this under-handed attempt to undermine Nicola Sturgeon.

Working in Shetland this afternoon I have spoken to a number of residents, and they are shocked and appalled by Mr Carmichael’s behaviour.

He has said he considers that this would be a matter which, had he still been in cabinet, would have required his resignation as a Minister. In my view, had Mr Carmichael continued to be part of the government post-election, this may never have come to light. It is exactly this kind of cover up in so many aspects of the Westminster bubble that the majority of the people of Shetland and Scotland voted against.

It is incredible that he believes he can continue to represent the constituents he has openly misled.”

Jean condemns Cameron’s draconian and unjust immigration plans

Jean launching her Not My Xenophobia campaign with Glasgow Girls campaigner Roza Salih and Scottish Greens co-convenor Maggie Chapman
Jean launching her Not My Xenophobia campaign with Glasgow Girls campaigner Roza Salih and Scottish Greens co-convenor Maggie Chapman
Jean Urquhart has spoken out against the radical anti-immigration plans announced by David Cameron this morning, and pledged to investigate ways the Scottish Parliament could resist some of the proposals.

In a speech at the Home Office, Cameron said the Queen’s Speech next week would include measures to create a criminal offence of ‘illegal working’ and confiscate the wages of undocumented migrants, adopt what he called a “deport-first-appeal-later” approach to immigration appeals, and make landlords and banks investigate the immigration status of tenants and customers.

Jean said:

“Cameron’s speech this morning scapegoated migrants, then used that as a pretext for shockingly draconian and unjust proposals. It’s hard to put it any more succinctly than the Sky reporter who summarised Cameron’s message to migrants as: ‘we are going to treat you like criminals.’

“His plan for a criminal offence of ‘illegal working’ is nothing less than a back-door way of criminalising undocumented migrants. If undocumented migrants working in our businesses and contributing to our economy really was the problem he claims, he would punish the employers, not the migrants.

“From Legal Aid cuts to employment tribunal charges, the Conservatives in government have made a concerted assault on access to justice and today’s speech continued that effort. His plan to deport undocumented migrants without appeal, forcing them to attempt to appeal remotely from another country, radically reduces the chance of a fair hearing.

“Cameron’s plan to turn landlords into immigration officers by making them investigate their tenants, and to automatically cancel tenancies when visas expire, seems to cross the line from immigration policy to housing policy – which is a devolved matter. So I will be looking into what the Scottish Parliament can do to protect our migrant tenants from suffering this intrusion and threat of homelessness.

“I’m hugely grateful to all those who have already taken part in the #notmyxenophobia campaign online by calling out anti-immigrant attitudes in politics and the media. This renewed attack on migrants makes it all the more important that refuse to be quiet in the face of xenophobia.”

Jean launched Not My Xenophobia in March, inviting Scots social media users to name-and-shame examples of xenophobic language, stereotypes and attitudes they see being used by newspapers, adverts, TV programmes and politicians. You can take part in the campaign by sharing any examples of bigotry and xenophobia on Twitter with the hashtag #notmyxenophobia, or on the campaign’s Facebook page, or by emailing jean@notmyxenophobia.scot.