Euthanasia will be debated in the Scottish Parliament

An MSP has gained enough support from colleagues to have a full debate on assisted suicide in the Scottish parliament.

Margo MacDonald wants to allow terminally ill patients the ‘right’ to have help in committing suicide.

She has previously called for such a right to be granted to children over twelve, or even younger if they are deemed mature enough.

Mrs Macdonald secured a debate in Holyrood after 20 other MSPs backed her cause.

However Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish health minister, has remained opposed to the idea, fearing the proposals are open to abuse.

Mrs MacDonald suffers from Parkinson’s disease and wants the right to have assistance in ending her life if she wishes it.

The MSP travelled to the Netherlands in 2007 to produce a TV documentary on the issue and, although the exact content of her bill is not yet known, Mrs MacDonald is reportedly impressed by the Dutch approach to euthanasia.

Holland has allowed voluntary euthanasia for some years, but the Government has acknowledged that there is a serious problem with involuntary euthanasia.

In 2004 it called for an investigation into the non-reporting of euthanasia by doctors. One study suggested only 54 per cent of cases were reported in 2001.

Official statistics show that in 2001 there were 4,664 cases of medical intervention to shorten life in Holland, representing 3.3 per cent of all deaths. Yet of these there was no explicit request for euthanasia in 938 cases, meaning 20 per cent of all medically assisted deaths were involuntary.

In 2004 a group of senior Dutch doctors formally reported themselves for killing 22 terminally ill newborn babies. They called for the Dutch Government to legalise infant euthanasia.

A number of groups have voiced their concern that even a slight change in the law would be dangerous, especially for vulnerable people.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has often added its opposition to legalising assisted suicide.

When Mrs MacDonald first made her proposals, Dr George Fernie of the BMA said: “The BMA would be very disappointed if we ended up with having legalised physician-assisted suicide in Scotland.”

He added: “People when they have a debilitating illness that may end their life are extremely vulnerable, they’re at a fragile stage.”

“And our worry is they’re going to contemplate ending their life when that really isn’t their wish.”

Last year Dr David Jeffrey, a leading end-of-life care specialist, warned that making assisted suicide legal in the UK would kill patient trust.

He said that while articulate patients were lobbying for a change in the law, he was concerned about vulnerable people “who don’t know where to turn and who feel they are a burden.”

Dr Jeffrey added: “The law has to protect them.”

In a poll of 460 GPs carried out by GP newspaper more than 60 per cent of GPs wanted assisted suicide to remain illegal, although in 2004 a survey by Brunel University found that 82 per cent of GPs supported a ban on euthanasia.

A survey of members of the Association for Palliative Medicine in 2006 found that 94 per cent were against any change in the law.

A similar poll by the Royal College of Physicians the same year showed that 73 per cent of its members also opposed a review.