Royal College of Physicians drops their opposition to assisted dying, following controversial poll

Laura Donnelly
One medic called the survey 'a sham poll' - PA

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has dropped its opposition to assisted dying, following a controversial poll.

The college will adopt a “neutral” stance after a survey of its 36,000 members about whether the law should be changed to permit doctor-assisted dying.

The poll found 43.4 per cent of respondents were opposed to a change in the law - little different to a finding of 44.4 per cent when the poll was conducted in 2014.

The number wanting the college to support assisted dying increased to 31.6 per cent from 24.6 per cent.

Just 25 per cent thought the RCP stance should be neutral - a fall from 31 per cent, when medics were last polled.

However, the terms of the new poll mean the college will now adopt a neutral position.

The RCP had said it would do so, unless there was a 60 per cent majority for or against.  

As a result, the college was accused of running a “sham poll” by medics who say that it has framed the survey in order to shift its position.

Medics were also asked if they would be prepared to participate in assisted dying if the law changed.

The percentage saying they would be prepared to participate in assisted dying increased from 21.4 per cent to 24.6 per cent.  The number saying no fell from 58.4 per cent to 55.1 per cent.

RCP president Professor Andrew Goddard said: “It is clear that there is a range of views on assisted dying in medicine, just as there is in society. We have been open from the start of this process that adopting a neutral position will mean that we can reflect the differing opinions among our membership.

“Neutral means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law and we won’t be focusing on assisted dying in our work. Instead, we will continue championing high quality palliative care services.”

A free vote in the Commons in 2015 rejected proposals that would have allowed people with less than six months to live to be prescribed drugs to end their lives with the approval of two doctors and a judge.

The RCP had faced a legal challenge over its decision,  but this was today rejected by the High Court.

Doctors David Randall, Dermot Kearney, Kathryn Myers and Adrian Treloar - all RCP members or fellows - said they were disappointed but not suprised by the poll results.

The medics said: “Sick and vulnerable people are at risk as a result of College neutrality on assisted suicide. The profession has not moved on this issue, so neither should the College.”

It comes after John Saunders, former chairman of the college's ethics committee called the survey a "sham poll".

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of pressure group Dignity in Dying said, “It is highly significant that the oldest medical college in England has dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of a neutral position.

"This will allow the RCP to accurately reflect the range of views among its members and to contribute its expertise to the debate in a more balanced way. The RCP will now join the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal Society of Medicine and medical associations around the world which have taken a balanced and compassionate stance on this issue," she said. 

Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing, said the position was “absurd”: “Yet again doctors have shown they do not support changing the law on assisted suicide,” he said.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff and Lord Carlile of Berriew, who co-chair Living and Dying Well, said only 25 per cent of respondents to the RCP poll said they wished the college to have a neutral position.

They said: "No-one will be surprised by the outcome of this poll, the rules for which were changed to involve a significant departure from those governing previous consultations and which were set, under pressure from campaigners for assisted suicide, in such a way as to produce the result they have.

"In fact, more RCP members and fellows voted for the college to oppose assisted suicide than voted for neutrality. But as a result of the recent arbitrary and politically motivated change in the rules, their views have been ignored.

"The change in voting rules, which was made without any consultation or authorisation from RCP members, has understandably attracted widespread criticism, prompting the former chair of the college's ethics committee to describe this consultation as a 'sham'.

"Campaigners for assisted suicide may try to claim that the consultation shows a shift in medical opinion on this highly-charged matter.

"In reality it cannot be regarded as a serious expression of medical opinion and it has damaged the college's reputation as a professional body."

Speaking for the Church of England, The Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, said: “We note the RCP’s decision, and welcome the President’s assurances that the RCP will not be focusing on assisted dying, instead continuing to champion high-quality palliative care services, an emphasis that the Church of England shares and has always encouraged.

“We also recognise that fewer than one third of RCP members wanted the College to support a change in the current law prohibiting assisted suicide while fewer than a quarter said they would participate in assisted dying should the law change.

“The Church of England’s position remains to affirm the intrinsic value of every human life and express its support for the current law on assisted suicide as a means of contributing to a just and compassionate society in which vulnerable people are protected," he said.