BMA abandons opposition to assisted dying and adopts neutral stance

The medical body made the decision following a debate at its annual representative meeting

Thomas Kingsley
Tuesday 14 September 2021 18:14
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<p>A majority of doctors are in support of a law change </p>

A majority of doctors are in support of a law change

The British Medical Association has decided to take a neutral stance on the subject of assisted dying, abandoning its previous opposition to the issue.

In its annual representative meeting on Tuesday, the leading doctors’ union concluded a debate with the decision to amend its official position. The BMA has opposed assisted dying since 2006.

The landmark change follows a pivotal survey last year involving 29,000 BMA members. It revealed that 40 per cent of members said the BMA should support a law change to allow assisted dying, 21 per cent said it should take a neutral position, and 33 per cent thought the medical body should maintain its stance.

The BMA joins the Royal College of Nursing as well as the Royal College of Physicians, England’s oldest medical college, which dropped its opposition to assisted dying in 2019.

Polls suggest that the majority of doctors agree that there should be a law change to allow assisted dying.

Prospective legislation in relation to assisted dying will be debated in the House of Lords next month, the first time in six years that the topic has been debated in the Lords.

Assisted dying is currently prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966), which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.

In 2019 Dr Jacky Davis, chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, proposed a successful motion calling on the BMA to survey its members for their views on assisted dying for the first time.

Another motion passed on Tuesday called for “robust conscience rights” to be included in any future legislation on assisted dying in the UK, meaning that healthcare workers should be able to conscientiously object to participating in assisted dying.

The move to a neutral position on assisted dying was welcomed by some campaign groups, with Dignity in Dying chief executive Sarah Wootton saying: “This is a historic decision and a victory for common sense.

“It brings the BMA in line with a growing number of medical bodies in the UK and around the world that truly represent the range of views that healthcare professionals hold on assisted dying.

“Last year’s BMA survey, the largest ever of medical opinion on assisted dying, proved that its stance of opposition was unrepresentative and undemocratic, silencing great swathes of its membership. It also revealed that more doctors now personally support law change than oppose it.”

However, Care Not Killing chief executive Dr Gordon Macdonald said that current laws protect vulnerable people and do not need changing.

He said: “We are naturally disappointed at the divisive nature of this vote as it exposes the divide between doctors who care for patients at their end of life, whether in hospitals or hospices, who oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, and those medics who work in unrelated disciplines, such as child and adolescent psychiatry and occupational health.

“As the BMA’s own survey found, doctors at the coal face who deliver care to the elderly and terminally ill, who work in palliative care, geriatric medicine and general practice, continue to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, because they know it is not needed and the subtle pressure it could put on patients to end their lives prematurely.”

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