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Assisted dying debated at Abertay

7 March 2016

Graeme Catto - former Head of the General Medical Council, and Rev David Robertson - Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, took part in a debate as part of our Sociology Division's Critical Thinking Module today (Monday 7 March).

The motion under debate was ‘The dying should have the right to a dignified death at the time and place of their choosing’.

Graeme Catto is currently Chairman of the group Dignity in Dying and argued in favour of the motion.

In his role as Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, David Robertson was a vocal opponent of the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill 2015 and argued against the motion.

The aim of the Critical Thinking Module is to facilitate the development of students’ critical thinking skills. A series of six debates take place across the semester, and debate questions are chosen for their contemporary relevance and for the fact that there are no easy answers.

The debates are followed-up by ‘Critical Thinking Seminars’ where students are tutored to identify the types of arguments presented, to evaluate competing perspectives and to reflect on their own reasoning processes and value assumptions.

As an elective module, students from across the university attend. As well as Sociology students, this year students studying Food and Consumer Science, Sport and Exercise Science, Computer Arts, Ethical Hacking and Business Studies - to name but a few - have been taking part.

Electronic keypads are distributed to the audience before each debate starts and they vote in real time. The results are then displayed on the lecture screen as a graph: for/against/don’t know.

The before and after votes allow everyone to see where the audience collectively stands on the issue and, in the latter vote, to what degree the audience have been swayed by the arguments and evidence they’ve heard.

Speaking about today's debate Dr Donncha Marron said:

"It was an excellent debate - my favourite of the series so far - showcasing two powerful speakers with a close command of the issues, sympathetic to the perspective of their opponent but determined and passionate in defence of their positions. 

"Before the motion, a vote was taken and a very high 80 per cent of the audience agreed, with 10 per cent disagreeing and 10 per cent unsure – not surprising in a young, liberal-minded student audience.

"Sir Graeme, in his defence of the motion, pointed to high levels of public support for assisted dying among the general public - reflected in the audience - including from among those who are disabled. He was careful to specify the limits under which a terminally-ill individual would be equipped to take their own life and pointed to evidence from Oregon that only 0.4 per cent of such individuals actually go on to do so. For Sir Graeme, however, it is the autonomy, dignity and rights of the individual that are at stake.

"Wryly acknowledging that audience opinion was against him, Reverend Robertson argued strongly against the motion. He expressed concern at an approach that leads to medical professionals no longer operating under a presumption of the utmost sanctity of human life and attacked what he saw as an illusory perspective that life and death could be so easily reduced to simple matters of calculation."

Moving to the audience, students raised many interesting and challenging issues for the speakers to respond to including: the proper role of the state in such a contentious issue, analogies with personal autonomy and abortion rights, the implications of the issue for the physically disabled and how the problem of loneliness might impact on those electing to end their lives.

At the conclusion of the debate, the audience were invited to vote a second time and, again, they were strongly for the motion. 70 per cent were in favour, 21 per cent disagreed and nine per cent remained unsure. However, Reverend Robertson’s arguments clearly found some purchase as more than 1 in 10 of the audience had changed their minds.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E:

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