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16-year-olds with anorexia could be granted assisted suicide in Scotland, expert warns

Scotland’s proposed assisted suicide bill could allow assisted suicide for people with anorexia from as young as 16 years olds, an ethics expert has argued.

Professor David Albert Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, has argued that the broad definition of terminal illness present in the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill could allow state-assisted suicide for people suffering from anorexia.

“It is called the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill, so that proclaims itself as being restricted to people who are terminally ill, but it defines people that are terminally ill only as people who have a progressive incurable disease, which is at an advanced stage. It doesn’t mean that you’re dying”, Professor Jones told the Daily Mail.

“Terminal in the Scottish Bill is defined as someone having a progressive incurable disease from which you could die. It could cover anorexia. There have been cases of people with anorexia having [assisted suicide] dying in Oregon in the US”.

He also drew attention to the fact that the legislation applies to children from the age of 16 and that there is no requirement for a psychiatric assessment ahead of an assisted suicide.

Chief Executive of eating disorder charity Beat, Andrew Radford, said “Eating disorders are treatable mental illnesses – not terminal conditions”.

Professor Jones has previously suggested that the broad definition of terminal illness in the proposed assisted suicide legislation in Scotland “would include conditions such as type 1 diabetes”.

In December 2021, a 33-year-old Dutch woman had her life legally ended through euthanasia because she was suffering from anorexia.

Support for assisted suicide on the decline

In an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics Forum, Professor Jones found that in polling commissioned by the pro-assisted suicide lobby group Dignity in Dying, strong support for “assisted dying” in Scotland decreased from 55% in 2019, to 45% in 2023, and 40% in 2024.

Similarly, a YouGov bimonthly tracker asked this same question 31 times from August 2019 to April 2024: “Do you think the law should or should not be changed to allow someone to assist in the suicide of someone suffering from a painful, incurable but NOT terminal illness?”. Over this time period, support for a change in the law decreased from 56% to 41%.

Professor Jones explains that overall support for assisted suicide in YouGov polling is significantly lower than overall support in Dignity in Dying polling “in part because of the reference to ‘assisted suicide’ rather than ‘assisted dying’”.

“There is evidence that many people are confused about what is included in ‘assisted dying’. A survey conducted in 2021 found that most people thought that this meant either ‘giving people who are dying the right to stop life-prolonging treatment’ (42%) or ‘providing hospice-type care to people who are dying’ (10%)”.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “While prominent supporters of assisted suicide in the UK such as Esther Rantzen have said it should not be available for people suffering from psychiatric conditions, the experience in other countries and the vagueness of the legislation in Scotland is a clear indication of what could happen if the practice is made legal in the UK”.

“If assisted suicide is made legal on the basis that it is needed to alleviate suffering, it remains unclear why it should be denied to people who are experiencing mental suffering as opposed to physical suffering alone. In such cases, as in all cases of people experiencing suicidality, comfort, support and love are needed to alleviate the suffering as far as possible, not the offer of death”.

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