One in five says they have been asked actively to intervene to end a patient's life, in circumstances where the patient was mentally competent and had made a witnessed request for euthanasia. Twenty-two of the 750 doctors who replied admitted having helped someone die. "The survey results support what I have suspected for some time," said Geoff Hinchley, a member of the BMA's ethics committee, "that a liberalisation of the profession's views on euthanasia is occurring."
Mr Hinchley, an accident-and-emergency consultant at Chase Farm Hospital, London, added: "The profession doesn't seem as reluctant to make decisions about the treatment of patients near to death as it has been in the past. Doctors appear to be slightly more comfortable with the active management of death." In 1987 a national poll of GPs indicated 35 per cent in favour, said the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, although a survey by Glasgow University earlier this year pointed to about half of doctors favouring a change in the law.
The results come despite the BMA remaining opposed to euthanasia. Stuart Horner, chairman of its ethics committee, said: "If we genuinely believe that all the efforts of medicine have been exhausted, it may well be that in a particular case euthanasia has to be considered. That is a matter for the doctors concerned and I would be the last person to say they had done the wrong thing."
Withholding treatment from those for whom it is no longer justified is now part of current routine practice, the magazine says. And growing numbers of doctors say they are prepared to honour "advance directives", by which patients try to set limits on heroic efforts to keep them alive. Seventy- six per cent said they would respect a refusal of treatment expressed in a living will. Six per cent said they would not do so, and 92 per cent believed there were circumstances in which withdrawal or withholding treatment was justified to hasten death.
The doctors' own experiences, in practice and with their relatives, appear to have helped form their views. A consultant physician from Trent said: "In my career I have seen many people die unpleasant deaths and would wish to prevent myself or my family suffering in similar circumstances."
A consultant neurosurgeon in Manchester said: "The ending of a life in a severely injured, disabled or brain-damaged patient is a personal, deeply private matter between the patient, the family and the senior treating physicians. It is not a matter for media sensation."
But doctors in hospices were cautious about changing the law to allow euthanasia. One said: "I am totally opposed to euthanasia but there are times when I would not take active steps to prolong someone's life." A palliative-care specialist said it was often relatives rather than the patient who pressed for a life to be ended.