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BMA goes 'neutral' on assisted suicide

Assisted Suicide
14 September 2021
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The British Medical Association has moved to a position of 'neutrality' on assisted suicide, following an extremely close vote today.

The doctors' union, which represents around 150,000 medics throughout Britain, voted to adopt this change at its Annual General Meeting.

Around 49 per cent of the BMA's representative body voted in favour of the motion to move to a neutral stance on the issue, with 48 per cent against and three per cent abstaining.

It previously opposed assisted suicide, but polled its members last year on whether it should change its official stance on the current law.

Vote fol­lows 2020 Poll

The poll had the following findings:

  • Four in ten (40%) surveyed members expressed the view that the British Medical Association (BMA) should actively support attempts to change the law, one in three (33%) favoured opposition and one in five (21%) felt the BMA should adopt a neutral position, neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs.
  • Half (50%) of surveyed members personally believed that there should be a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. Four in ten (39%) were opposed, with a further one in ten (11%) undecided.

However, almost half of those who responded were not willing to prescribe life-ending drugs themselves.

Strong oppos­i­tion to admin­is­ter­ing life-end­ing drugs

Furthermore, when it came to administering drugs to patients (as opposed to prescribing them for patients to self-administer) 40 per cent of surveyed members said the BMA should actively oppose attempts to change the law to permit doctors to administer life-ending drugs. Three in ten (30%) favoured support, and 23 per cent felt the BMA should adopt a neutral stance of neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law.

Forty-six percent of surveyed members personally opposed a change in the law to permit doctors to administer life-ending drugs, with a further 37% supportive and 17% undecided.

Fifty-four percent of surveyed members said that they would not be willing to actively participate in the process of administering life-ending drugs, should it be legalised.

A large group of palliative care doctors remained opposed to any change to the BMA's stance, and had previously urged members to remain opposed to assisted suicide.

What does neut­ral­ity mean?

A position of neutrality does not mean the BMA is actively supporting a change in the law, and the tiny majority by which the motion passed by no means provides the ‘green light’ from the medical community which pro-assisted suicide campaigners were hoping for.

However, some may use this result to argue that medical bodies are no longer opposed to a change in the law, which is what happened when the Royal College of Physicians changed its stance in 2019.

The RCP adopted a neutral stance following its controversial poll, but has since clarified it does not actively support changing the law to legalise assisted suicide. However, this poll is still being used by pro-assisted suicide advocates as evidence that medical bodies have shifted in position.

The Royal College of GPs also consulted its members regarding its stance on assisted suicide and, following the results last year, remains opposed to a change in the law.

Dr Gordon Macdonald of Care Not Killing commented on the result:

“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 discipline 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.”
Dr Gordon Macdonald Care Not Killing

Assisted sui­cide to be debated in Par­lia­ment in weeks

As this result has appeared a few weeks before Baroness Meacher's Assisted Dying Bill is to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords, on 22 October, it is likely it will be used as ammunition to change the law by advocates of assisted suicide in Parliament.

You can find out more about the Bill and action you can take here.

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