BMA drops opposition to assisted dying

·3-min read
Doctor and stethoscope - Lynne Cameron/PA
Doctor and stethoscope - Lynne Cameron/PA

The British Medical Association has dropped its opposition to assisted dying and adopted a neutral stance following a vote at its annual representative meeting.

It comes as the Assisted Dying Bill is due to return to the House of Lords for its second reading next month. It will be the first parliamentary debate on the topic in six years.

Some 49 per cent of the BMA’s representative body voted on Tuesday in favour of a motion for it to move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying, including physician-assisted dying, with 48 per cent against it and three per cent abstaining.

Historically, the BMA has been opposed to a change in the law on assisted dying.

The union said that while the decision meant it would neither support nor oppose attempts to change the law, it would not be silent on the issue and had “a responsibility to represent its members’ interests and concerns in any future legislative proposals”.

The debate comes after a survey showed that 40 per cent of members said the BMA should support attempts to change the law on prescribing drugs for eligible patients to self-administer to end their own life, with 33 per cent favouring opposition and 21 per cent saying the union should be neutral.

The first survey to poll BMA members on their views on assisted dying also found that 50 per cent believed that there should be a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs, with 39 per cent opposed and 11 per cent undecided.

Proposing the motion at the BMA’s annual representative meeting, Dr Robin Arnold said moving to a neutral position would allow the BMA to represent all its members.

He added: “You do not have to decide today whether you are in favour of physician-assisted dying or against it, you have to consider how best the wide range of views of our membership can be represented.”

But some members warned that a neutral stance would be seen as “tacit” approval of euthanasia.

Dr Gillian Wright said: “This motion is actually about euthanasia, the BMA defines physician-assisted dying as assisted suicide and euthanasia.

“We know that neutrality means tacit approval and has enormous political significance.”

Dr Jacky Davis, the chairman of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, said: “The BMA should be commended for listening to its members and for adopting a position which now represents the range of views on assisted dying among doctors fairly and accurately. A neutral position promotes inclusion, respects diversity of thought and gives the BMA a seat at the table in this historic debate.

“It will enable our profession to contribute constructively to future legislation to help ensure it works for doctors, works for dying people and works for society as a whole.”

The move was welcomed by some campaign groups, with Dignity in Dying chief executive Sarah Wootton branding it “a victory for common sense”.

Pro-assisted dying campaigners, including Baroness Meacher, Maureen Hogg, Karin Smyth, Christine Jardine and Paul Blomfield, Alex Hogg, Sarah Wootton, Aneez Esmail - Heathcliff O'Malley
Pro-assisted dying campaigners, including Baroness Meacher, Maureen Hogg, Karin Smyth, Christine Jardine and Paul Blomfield, Alex Hogg, Sarah Wootton, Aneez Esmail - Heathcliff O'Malley

The Assisted Dying Bill would give terminally ill and mentally competent adults in the final six months of their lives the option to die at a time and place of their choosing, with all requests subject to approval from two independent doctors and a High Court judge.

Baroness Meacher, the peer behind the legislation, believes it has enough votes to pass.

Following the BMA vote she said she is feeling “very chipper”.

“This is a very very big shift,” she told The Telegraph.

“I am extremely relieved that the BMA council respects the fact that the overall majority of their members did want to shift away from opposition. It would have been quite outrageous if they hadn’t.

“So it’s really a sense of relief that the situation is now very clear that not only the BMA, but the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Nursing are now neutral and enabling a genuine debate to go forward.”

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