MSPs are being urged to change the law on assisted dying to prevent 11 people a week dying in pain in Scotland.

The charity Dignity in Dying says the current law is creating suffering and leaving people with no control over the timing or nature of their death.

Despite advances in palliative care, which Dignity in Dying supports, medicine has its limits and, for some patients, distressing or degrading symptoms as well as overwhelming pain cannot be controlled during the final stages of their life.

Writing in The Herald today, Ally Thomson, director of Dignity in Dying Scotland, calls the current law an injustice and says “dying people and their families are in effect the collateral damage of a blanket prohibition on assisted dying”.

Recent research from the campaign shows overwhelming public support for a change in the law, she claims, and also confirms that many medical professionals acknowledge the suffering some people experience when close to death.

She cites the case of right-to-die campaigner Richard Selley, who suffered from Motor Neurone Disease, and who died on September 6 at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich.

Ms Thomson says she promised to take Richard’s message to the Scottish Parliament. “In the weeks and months to come I will be taking his message to Holyrood. I will also take the evidence that our lawmakers need to bring about the changes Richard so desperately wanted to see,” she says.

“It is imperative the Scottish Parliament acts soon and introduces a compassionate and safe alternative to prolonged suffering for our dying citizens.”

Polling carried out by Dignity in Dying has found 46 per cent of health professionals say they have cared for someone who  has suffered at the end of their life, despite the best palliative care. The poll also found 62% believed medical professionals intentionally shorten someone’s life out of compassion when that person has asked for help to end their suffering. 

Meanwhile, 41% of the public know a friend or relative who has “suffered unbearably” towards the end of their life. and just six per cent think the law against assisted dying is working well.

People who have “lived and died under the injustice of the current law” generally say three things, Ms Thomson claims. Firstly, that we allow people to suffer in ways we would not accept for our pets. Secondly, they commonly remark on the difference between how informed  and prepared people usually are for a birth compared with the lack of planning regarding a death. Thirdly, “they say that [in the future] we will look back and wonder why we allowed such suffering to occur”.

The suffering is not confined to the person who is dying, Ms Thomson adds. “Complex grief has symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can occur when a death has been traumatic. People we interviewed attributed their own depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social isolation, nightmares, guilt and fear to the manner in which they saw their loved one die.”

The claim that 11 people a week are dying in pain in Scotland is based on  research from the Office of Health Economics, which found data suggesting that even if every dying person who needed it had access to the level of care provided in hospices, 591 people a year would still have no relief of their pain in their final three months life. 

Dignity in Dying’s recent report, The Inescapable Truth About Dying 
In Scotland, outlines some of the symptoms people suffer at the end of their life, including severe pain, extreme nausea and fungating wounds. It claims some patients cannot be relieved of these conditions even with access to high quality palliative care.

Ms Thomson says Dignity in Dying fully supports improved funding for 
and access to palliative care. But the campaign is stressing the limitations of pain relief and other forms of palliative care because they are often cited by those opposed to changing the law on assisted dying. 

While some MSPs support reform of the law on assisted dying, the Scottish Parliament rejected a bill drafted by the late Margo MacDonald, and taken forward by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, which would have allowed those with terminal illnesses to seek the help of a doctor to end their own life.

Earlier this year, a letter signed by nine MSPs from across the parties argued: “Have we really become a society that says the best answer we can provide to those suffering in end-of-life situations is to help them kill themselves? Is that really all we can offer?

“That, to us, is the measure of a desperately cold, soulless society. We think that in Scotland today we are better than that.”

The Scottish Government has so far been opposed to a change in the law.