PLANS to legalise assisted suicide encountered a critical setback yesterday when members of Holyrood’s health committee failed to back them in a key report.

In a disappointing move for campaigners backing the bill, MSPs described it as “flawed” and said it faced “major challenges” in proceeding through the Scottish Parliament.

Now it faces being thrown out if a majority of MSPs fail to support it when it is voted on by the full parliament after the General Election.

MSPs will vote according to their conscience with the free vote due to take place before the end of the month.

The Assisted Suicide Bill was introduced by the late Margo MacDonald and championed by the Greens’ Patrick Harvie following her death.

It proposes to allow those with terminal or life-shortening illnesses to obtain help in ending their suffering and received a large degree of public support.

Earlier this year a poll suggested that public opinion appeared to be firmly behind the proposals which had also received celebrity backing from author Ian Rankin, actor Elaine C Smith and Scots Makar Liz Lochhead.

But yesterday’s report said: “The committee believes the bill contains significant flaws. These present major challenges as to whether the bill can be progressed.”

Bob Doris MSP, deputy convener of the health committee, said he acknowledged the positive intentions of Harvie in bringing the legislation forward but said the bill would need “significant amendment” to progress.

In response, Harvie said: “This committee report makes no formal recommendation to MSPs, and it’s right that members decide on this issue each having considered it carefully.

“It is, however, disappointing that the committee has placed so little emphasis on the responses I and others have given to the criticisms of the bill, many of which are grounded in an ideological opposition to personal choice.

“I am hopeful that MSPs will listen to all sides when the bill reaches the voting stage, and that they will act to end the unnecessary suffering of those who are seeking help to take control at the end of their lives.”

The report was informed by the written views of more than 800 people and organisations, with oral evidence taken from more than 30 individuals and groups.

Sheila Duffy from My Life, My Death, My Choice, the campaign supporting the bill, said: “We are content that the health and sport committee has produced a report which seeks to inform the debate and makes no formal recommendation to the Parliament on the stage one vote, leaving the issue up to each MSP to decide for themselves.

“This is only right and proper with an issue subject to a free vote but is a huge step forward from a similar stage of previous attempts at this kind of legislation, reflecting the improvements.”

The bill is the second attempt to legislate for assisted suicide at Holyrood, after previous proposals were rejected by MSPs in a free vote in 2010.

The committee’s report analysed issues including the existing law, compassion, autonomy, mental capacity and the role of healthcare professionals.

It said: “The committee is not persuaded by the argument that the lack of certainty in the existing law on assisted suicide makes it desirable to legislate to permit assisted suicide.”

MSPs also raised concerns the bill had the potential to undermine suicide prevention messages by “softening cultural perceptions of suicide at the perimeters”.

Harvie said: “When I agreed to take this bill forward following the loss of Margo MacDonald, I was clear that I would be open to suggestions to strengthen it, so we achieve a robust piece of legislation.

“I will publish a full response to the stage one report before the bill reaches its first vote.”

Dr Gordon Macdonald, of the opposition campaign Care Not Killing, said: “We are delighted that the committee agrees with us that the bill contains significant flaws which are likely to prevent it from being enacted.”

Rev Sally-Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland’s church and society council, said: “The Church of Scotland, along with a considerable number of groups, remains concerned with both the general principles and the specific content of the Assisted Suicide Bill.

“Critical flaws in the proposed legislation include an absence of any mental health check and a minimum age of 16. Both make the bill in its present form untenable.”

Case Study:

PARKINSON’S patient Gordon Ross last night urged MSPs to back the Assisted Suicide Bill when it is voted on by all MSPs this month.

The former civil servant, opera producer and BBC production manager said he was disappointed with the lack of support given to the proposals in the health’s committee report.

But he called on MSPs to support the bill so it could proceed to the next parliamentary stage.

Speaking from his Glasgow care home, he told The National: “I was disappointed with the report, but not really surprised. I think the religious lobby is too strong.

“I hope the MSPs will vote for it.”

He added: “It should be my choice about when I want to end my life. I have no desire to end my life at the moment, but I am fighting for the right to do so, and to be able to do so in a civilised way.” 

The 66-year-old was told that he had the degenerative brain condition in 2005. 

Its onset was gradual but unmistakable and two years ago he began to find himself falling down frequently. He spent six months in hospital and doctors diagnosed peripheral neuropathy – damage to the nervous system that can be caused by diabetes.  Last year he launched a legal challenge to remove the current uncertainty over how Scots law treat assisted suicide,

He said he believed the existing legal situation caused some severely ill people to take their own lives “long before” they wanted to.

His solicitors, Patrick Campbell and Co, wrote to the Crown Office to begin the action, which aims to clarify the law in Scotland. Legal challenges by patients south of the Border led to official guidance in 2010 stating that anyone who helps a terminally ill patient who wishes to die is unlikely to face court.

Campaigners hope Ross’s case will prompt similar guidelines in Scotland.