18 Jun, 12 | by BMJ Group
The BMJ recently expressed its support for the notion that the UK’s leading medical bodies, including the BMA and Royal Colleges, abandon their opposition to assisted dying in favour of a neutral stance.
The move comes as a recent poll undertaken by Dignity in Dying revealed that of 1000 GPs surveyed, 62% supported a shift to neutrality. This, accompanied by the finding that over 80% of the general public support the legalisation of assisted dying, means that the BMJ’s stance had become increasingly untenable.
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ, highlighted similarities with prior opposition to the legalisation of abortion and suggested that whilst doctors would have to carry out the procedure, the decision regarding the concept ‘rests with society and its representatives in parliament.’ In order for society’s views to be expressed adequately, the Healthcare professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD) ask for the BMA and certain opposing Royal Colleges to move their position to neutrality. At the BMA’s annual conference later this month, a debate on whether to assume a neutral position will ensue.
The proposition of neutrality is supported by HPAD’s Chair and Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine, Raymond Tallis who states that opposition to assisted dying hinders the principle of specific patient-centred care. This view is – at least in part – an acknowledgment of the fact that medical bodies’ opposition to assisted dying is in conflict with the wishes of the general public, the overwhelming majority of whom seem to support it. Thus he states that ‘the proper stance of healthcare professional bodies is one of neutrality’.
In response to the BMJ’s new bearing, Dr Peter Saunders, director of the pro-life group Care Not Killing stated that the call “is a carefully orchestrated move by a small minority of doctors with extreme views aimed at neutralising medical opposition and softening up public and parliamentary opinion in advance of new pressure to change the law.”
He maintains that a change in the law on assisted dying “would place pressure on vulnerable sick, elderly and disabled people to end their lives for fear of being a financial or emotional burden on loved ones” which is “the very last thing we need” at a time when scores of families “are already under considerable financial pressure”.
Whilst this shift towards neutrality may not actively support a case for legal reform on the matter, some have speculated that it may lay the foundations for the legalisation of assisted dying in the UK. However, the case of Belgium shows that in order for legal reform to occur, there must be overwhelming public, as well as institutional, support for it. The fundamental question is whether or not this is currently the case in the UK.
Medical bodies’ stances on assisted dying
Royal College of Physicians of London
Royal College of Surgeons of England
Royal College of General Practitioners
Association of Palliative Medicine
General Medical Council
Royal College of Anaesthetists
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh
Royal Society of Medicine
Royal College of Nursing
Royal College of Nursing Scotland
Royal College of Psychiatrists