Margo MacDonald 1943-2014
The death of Margo MacDonald today will affect every Scot of a certain age. Whatever you thought of her controversial views, we will always remember her as the blonde bombshell of Scottish politics. When she stormed to victory in the astonishing Govan by-election in 1970, she was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise boring political landscape – a force to be reckoned with. Having plied her trade as an MSP at the Scottish Parliament, there are those who have continued to refer to her as the blonde bombshell, if a bit older and a hell of a lot wiser. Margo had Parkinson’s Disease – something we have known for a few years now. She campaigned for the law to be changed to allow her to end her life if the disease became too painful and debilitating – to the extent where she might become a burden on the family she adored. It was typical Margo. The fact that she suffered from Parkinson’s is not the point. The point is that she always took her experience, whether good or bad, and used it to articulate for those whose voice was neither as loud nor as clear as her own. Margo was not asking just for herself but for everyone in unbearable pain. Assisted suicide or euthanasia means hastening the death of a person with a terminal illness. The term comes from the Greek word for ‘easy death’. As far as I am concerned, the vicious debate over euthanasia is galling to say the least – because it is about playing with words. For example, saying a doctor is playing God or committing murder is distorting the truth to a ridiculous degree. Such terms make a mockery of the truth which is allowing death to occur for nothing other than compassionate reasons. People should be allowed to die with dignity and that there is no one better to decide when the pain becomes too much than the person themselves. It would shock you to know that thousands of people out there want to die. They want to end it all because they have some disease or disability which means they themselves are unable to end their lives in a dignified manner. To spell it out, they cannot commit suicide. Maybe paralysis prevents them from reaching for the bottle, who knows? They may be in agonising pain and they may be incapable of functioning in any dignified human fashion. All they can do is see the future unfolding – with a lot more suffering, deterioration and humiliation.
Margo was trying to tell us something. And when someone as tough as Margo McDonald is reduced to asking for a merciful end to her worsening pain sometime in the future, it galls me that anybody in their right mind could think of saying no. She insisted that no legal sanctions be visited on anybody who might assist her in the act of dying. Those who support legalizing assisted suicide claim that we all have a moral right to choose. Opponents argue that society has a moral duty to protect and preserve all life. The religious say God gave us life and God, therefore, is the only one who has the right to take it away. Some people also believe that legalising assisted suicide would violate the rights of others. For example, doctors and nurses might find themselves “compromised” – having to cooperate with a patient’s suicide. In some cases, very few, there must be a fine line between euthanasia and murder. I’m talking about the unscrupulous few who, through resentment, love, whatever, would kill a relative for the wrong reasons and against that person’s free will but such rogues are few and far between. We need controls to ensure that doesn’t happen. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have sensible legislation in place, with medical and psychiatric provisos making absolutely sure assistance will only be given to those who have reached the end of their tether. By that, I mean people whose lives are so wretched they have to carry on in misery, knowing there is nothing they can do about it. I am sure that is what Margo McDonald envisaged. What we forget is that euthanasia goes on all the time. The fact is that doctors are used to making life-and-death decisions. In some respects, euthanasia is one of this country’s best kept secrets, the ultimate act of love that dare not speak its name; only as far as the medical profession is concerned, though. Mere human beings like us, who are not doctors, have no such options available. We are supposed to stand back and watch while our loved ones die in agony. In this country, an individual who helps another person to die will face legal consequences. Yet, every single day decisions are made about people’s lives such as: should we treat this patient with expensive life-saving drugs? Should that patient with learning disabilities be resuscitated if he or she suffers a heart attack? Is this old man worth treating, or should food and water be withdrawn because he is so near the end anyway? Yes, it goes on, but very quietly. In Parliament, The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill (ADTI, which covers England and Wales) was blocked in the House of Lords, but Lord Joffe, the sponsor of the Bill, has said he is committed to bringing it back before Parliament. In Scotland, MSP Jeremy Purvis’ (Now Baron Purvis of Tweed) Physician Assisted Suicide Bill never garnered enough support in Parliament. Both Bills propose allowing assisted dying for mentally competent, terminally ill adults at their own request, providing they meet certain safeguards. We must acknowledge that the law in relation to assisted dying as it stands is terrible – because it drives the practice underground. There is evidence that assisted dying takes place now, without regulation or safeguards. Every year we hear of more and more people going to Switzerland for an assisted death.
It would be far better, far safer, for terminally ill people to have the option of a safe, legal, medically assisted death here. We do not choose to be born but I believe we should respect a person’s desire – if they are sick and in unbearable pain – to die if that is what they choose. Our own Margo MacDonald has gone with all the majestic dignity she possessed in life.