BMA publishes results of biggest survey into UK doctors’ views on assisted dying to date

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Published: Thursday 8 October 2020

The British Medical Association (BMA) today publishes results of the biggest survey to date of UK doctors’ views on physician-assisted dying.

Almost 29,000 doctors and medical students answered questions about their views on whether there should be changes in law that would permit doctors to either prescribe or administer life-ending drugs to eligible patients. They were also asked what they believed the BMA’s position on a change in the law to permit physician-assisted dying should be.1

The survey followed a debate at last year’s (2019) BMA Annual Representative Meeting (ARM), in which BMA members (doctors and medical students) voted to instruct the Association to carry out the poll.2

The results of the survey will not determine BMA policy, which remains opposed to assisted dying in all forms. Rather, they will feed into a subsequent debate at next year’s ARM about the BMA’s position.3 Unless and until a decision is made at the ARM to change its position, the BMA’s current policy will remain.

Results

When asked about a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to eligible patients, the survey found:

  • 40% of surveyed members said that the 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.
  • Half (50%) of surveyed members personally believed that there should be a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. 39% were opposed, with a further 11% undecided.
  • 45% of surveyed members were not prepared to actively participate in the process of prescribing life-ending drugs, should it be legalised. 36% said they would be prepared to actively participate, and 19% were undecided.

On a change in the law to permit doctors to administer drugs to end an eligible patient’s life, the survey found:

  • 40% of surveyed members said that the BMA should actively oppose attempts to change the law, 30% favoured support, and 23% felt the BMA should adopt a neutral stance.
  • 46% personally opposed a change in the law, with a further 37% supportive and 17% undecided.
  • 54% said that they would not be willing to actively participate in the process of administering life-ending drugs, should it be legalised. A quarter (26%) said they would, and one in five (20%) were undecided.

Dr John Chisholm, BMA medical ethics committee chair, said:

“Physician-assisted dying is an emotive and sensitive issue that understandably ignites a broad range of strong personal views across both the general public and the medical profession, and the results from this survey give us a valuable insight into the breadth of views held by the BMA’s membership.

“As we have made clear from the outset, these results are not intended to form but to inform BMA policy, and it is not for me, or the BMA as an association to provide an interpretation of what they mean or what should happen next at this stage. Rather, these detailed findings will make for an in-depth, considered debate on the future of the BMA’s policy when our members meet at the next Annual Representative Meeting.”

Ends

Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. 28,986 BMA members took part in the survey between 6 and 27 February 2020. These are referred to as ‘surveyed members’ in the report.
  2. The ARM is the BMA’s main policy-making body. At the 2019 ARM in Belfast the following motion was passed:
    That this meeting notes the recent decision by the Royal College of Physicians to adopt a neutral position on assisted dying after surveying the views of its members, and:
    i) supports patient autonomy and good quality end of life care for all patients;
    ii) recognises that not all patient suffering can be alleviated;
    iii) calls on the BMA to carry out a poll of its members to ascertain their views on whether the BMA should adopt a neutral position with respect to a change in the law on assisted dying.
  3. Results had been due to be debated at this year’s five-day Annual Representative Meeting in June. However, in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s conference was postponed and held remotely for one day on 15 September. The intention has always been to allow time for thorough, in-depth debate on this issue, and therefore, after careful consideration and consultation with members, it was decided that assisted dying should not be debated or voted on during this year’s one-day meeting. Instead it will be debated at the next full ARM in June 2021. In order not to detract from the very important issues being debated at the 2020 virtual meeting, including issues related to the pandemic, it was decided to delay publication of the survey’s results until after that meeting.
  4. Find full results and more information here.