BMA to adopt neutral position on assisted dying

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA.

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 14 September 2021

The British Medical Association will adopt a neutral position on assisted dying following a debate and vote by representatives, while insisting that doctors must have legally protected rights to conscientiously object to participating should there be a change in law in the UK.

Doctors and medical student representatives at the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting, held virtually, debated the issue today and passed a motion1 to move the Association's position to one of neutrality. Being neutral means the BMA will not support or oppose a change in the law.

This supersedes the Association's previous policy of opposing assisted dying, which had been in place since 2006.

Separately, the BMA's representative body passed another motion calling for "robust conscience rights" to be included in any future legislation on assisted dying in the UK, meaning that healthcare workers should be able to conscientiously object to participating in assisted dying.

The move to a position of neutrality comes after the Association polled its membership on the issue last year. 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.

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

"Assisted dying is a highly emotive and sensitive topic that inspires a broad spectrum of views and opinions both across the wider public and among the medical profession, for whom any change of law would have a profound impact.

"As evidenced by the results of our recent survey of the profession and in today’s in-depth debate, doctors have a wide range of personal views on this important issue, and as such representatives have decided that the most appropriate position for the BMA, as the professional body which represents all doctors and medical students in the UK, to hold is to be neutral on the topic.

"This is an important day for the BMA and the medical profession, clearly demonstrating that we as an organisation are listening to our wider membership on such a crucial issue, and developing policy based on their valuable feedback.

"Moving to a position of neutrality means that the BMA will not lobby for or against a change in the law, but far from remaining silent on the issue, we will continue to represent the views, interests and concerns expressed by our members."

On the need for healthcare workers to have the right to conscientiously object to participation, Dr Chisholm added: "Indeed, as with many other issues that ignite such deeply held personal beliefs in healthcare staff, it is vital that these are respected and protected should there be any change in law.

"The need for the right of doctors to conscientiously object to participation in physician-assisted dying was something that was made overwhelmingly clear not just in today’s discussions, but also in the results to our survey, which found that 93% of respondents supported this."

ENDS

Notes to editors

The BMA is a professional association and trade union 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.

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  1. The full wording of the motions is as below:

70 Motion by SOUTH WEST REGIONAL COUNCIL:

That this meeting believes, in order to represent the diversity of opinion demonstrated in the survey of its membership, the British Medical Association should move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying including physician assisted dying. (Carried 49% for, 48% against, 3% abstained)

71 Motion by THE AGENDA COMMITTEE (TO BE PROPOSED BY LINCOLN DIVISION):

That this meeting calls for robust conscience rights to be included in any future legislation on assisted dying in the United Kingdom, believing that:-

i) the right of conscientious objection should apply to all health, care and administrative staff; (Carried 79% for, 18% against, 3% abstained)

ii) the right of conscientious objection should include the right to not prescribe lethal doses of medication; (Carried 96% carried, 3% against, 1% abstained)

iii) a clinician with a conscientious objection should still provide a factual report to any decision making body if appropriate and relevant; (Carried 72% for, 22% against, 6% abstained)

iv) a clinician with a conscientious objection should still refer to another clinician to ensure appropriate access to care. (Carried as a reference* 69% for, 30% against, 1% abstained. *A reference means the spirit of the motion is supported, but the BMA is not held to the specific wording)