BMA adopts neutral position on physician-assisted dying

by John Chisholm

This week, after a thorough and absorbing debate, the BMA representative body voted to change its policy on assisted dying, from opposition to neutrality.

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 14 September 2021

The BMA will now neither support nor oppose proposals to legalise physician-assisted dying in the UK.

The debate was informed by the findings of our all-BMA member survey on physician-assisted dying, which was published last October.

This was one of the biggest surveys of medical opinion on the issue that has ever been undertaken, with an impressive 28,986 BMA members responding.

I have written before about the results, and the trends and differences in opinion between nationality and specialty. The full results of the survey are available on the BMA’s website.

The survey was not a policy-forming exercise. The RB, which consists of about 500 representatives from all divisions and branches of practice, regional and national councils, is the BMA’s main policy-making body.

It is only when a motion is passed by the RB, after considered debate by representatives, that it becomes BMA policy. However, it is clear the survey helped to inform today’s vote and it shows the association is listening to its members.

Although the BMA will no longer take a view on whether the law on physician-assisted dying should change, we will still engage with debates and proposals for how assisted dying might be delivered should the law change.

As the professional association for doctors, we have a responsibility to ensure that our members’ professional interests are promoted and safeguarded.

Indeed, at our meeting the RB gave a strong message that doctors’ conscience rights must be protected in law if physician-assisted dying were to be legalised.

Any future law would have a significant effect on our members, and it is important their views and concerns are heard in any proposed legislation.

We have already started to discuss some of these practical issues with our members, including in our dialogue events in 2015, and in our survey and subsequent discussions; we will continue to seek the insights and perspectives of our members to help guide and inform our future policy development and engagement.

Physician-assisted dying is a divisive issue and there are strong and diverse opinions in our membership and society. We will continue to represent our members, whatever their views on this topic.

The next 12 months will be an important year in the assisted-dying debate. Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill is scheduled to receive its second reading in the Lords in October.

There will also be a public consultation on a similar bill proposed by Liam McArthur MSP in Holyrood. Although the BMA will neither oppose nor support the underlying principle of these proposals, we will continue to ensure the professional interests of doctors inform the development of any law and that patients’ rights are safeguarded.

John Chisholm is chair of the BMA medical ethics committee