Doctors abandon their opposition to euthanasia

In a historic move yesterday, doctors at the association's annual meeting in Manchester voted to abandon their current opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in favour of letting the public decide.

Representatives of the 120,000-member association agreed that the legality of assisting people to die was "primarily a matter for society and for Parliament" rather than doctors.

The decision means in effect that the BMA has adopted a neutral position on the issue of assisted dying – neither supporting nor opposing it. It follows a similar decision by the Royal College of Physicians.

However, a similar move by the Royal College of General Practitioners provoked an angry reaction from its members and the college's council voted to reinstate its former position, opposed to assisted dying, last month.

John Chisholm, former chairman of the GPs committee, said the rights of patients needed to be respected so they had more control over the process of dying. But, he added, there had to be safeguards to protect both doctors and patients who did not wish to be involved in assisted dying.

John Garner, a GP from Scotland, called for doctors to support an "open and transparent" system which allows patients to request an assisted death.

"I have no compunction about saying that if I was dying from a terminal illness, and life had become completely joyless and I was in pain, I would want to consider assisted suicide," Dr Garner said.

Ian Bailey, a consultant from Orpington, opposed the move. "It is not a doctor's role to be involved. We should not be involved in intentional killing," he said.

Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said of the vote: "Not everyone will like it. There will be people who say that we shouldn't have changed, and there will be people who say that we should have gone further."

At a debate earlier in the week, Ann Somerville, deputy head of ethics at the BMA, said new assisted-dying bills were expected in the English and Scottish parliaments and the Home Office was conducting a major review of the law on murder in which Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, was arguing for a lesser penalty for mercy killing.

She said current BMA policy did not distinguish between euthanasia, in which the doctor administers a lethal drug, and physician-assisted suicide, in which the doctor prescribes the drug but the patient administers it.

A study in Oregon in the US, where physician-assisted suicide is permitted, found that, of 67 terminally ill patients issued with prescriptions for lethal drugs, 39 died after using their prescriptions and 28 did not.

Of the 28 who did not use their prescription, 18 patients died of their illness while 10 were still alive at the end of the year of the audit.

The Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who had called for the BMA to change its stance, welcomed the outcome of the vote.

"The BMA had always opposed any change in the law but has now joined the royal colleges in thinking that this is now a matter for Parliament to decide and that the role of the medical profession is to press for the necessary safeguards, not to oppose an overdue move towards recognising the need for patients to have more autonomy at the end of their lives."

Dr Harris said the decision would be a "massive boost" for the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill introduced by Lord Joffe, which is due to return to the Lords later this year.

The Pro-Life Alliance said the result did not reflect the strong opposition of doctors and nurses to a change in the law.