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Scotland: Support for assisted suicide on the decline

Support for assisted suicide in Scotland has significantly declined in recent years according to a new analysis of the data.

In an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics Forum, Professor David Albert Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, has 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%)”.

Assisted suicide vs assisted dying

By comparing two separate YouGov trackers, one of which asks about support for assisted suicide in cases in which a person is terminally ill, and the other that asks about cases in which a person is not terminally ill, Professor Jones also found that support for assisted suicide in Scotland was 71% and 41% respectively.

The Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill might seem, as the title suggests, to be restricted to adults who are terminally ill, but the Bill “defines ‘terminal illness’ with no reference to a person being close to death. The term is used to cover anyone with an advanced progressive condition that would be expected to shorten life if not treated. This would include conditions such as type 1 diabetes. It is unclear if this is what the public understands by the term “terminal illness'”.

Dignity in Dying polling also asked whether they wished their MPs to vote in favour of a change in the law on this issue. Only 47% of respondents in Scotland wanted their MPs to vote to change the law. Among Asian respondents, this fell to 26% and among black respondents, this was as low as 16%. Only 15% of Scots thought the law would actually change in the next Parliament.

A 2023 public attitudes survey in Scotland did not find assisted suicide among people’s priorities.

Liam McArthur MSP published his assisted suicide bill last month. First Minister, Humza Yousaf, and Health Secretary, Michael Matheson, have stated their opposition to introducing assisted suicide.

After meeting with a disability advocacy group, Glasgow Disability Alliance, in September last year, Yousaf said that he felt “even less persuaded” that assisted suicide should be made legal in Scotland.

According to The Herald, Michael Matheson, the Health Secretary, said he was opposed to a change in legislation because he thought such a law would put pressure on sick and disabled people to choose assisted suicide.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “Professor Jones’ important work proves what many suspected – that support for assisted suicide is declining in Scotland. McArthur’s radical assisted suicide bill does not have the support from the general public that its campaigners claim it does, and the support it does have appears to be decreasing. Perhaps part of the reason for this comes from increased awareness about assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada where the law has rapidly expanded, as well as increased support for euthanasia for poverty and homelessness”.

“As in other jurisdictions, people in Scotland at the end of their lives need assistance to live, not to die”.

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