BMA moves to neutral stance on assisted dying

by Neil Hallows

The BMA is to adopt a neutral position on assisted dying, while also insisting doctors must have legally protected rights to object conscientiously to participating, should there be a change in law in the UK.

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 14 September 2021

Doctors and medical students at the BMA annual representative meeting passed, by a narrow majority, a motion which said: ‘In order to represent the diversity of opinion demonstrated in the survey of its membership, the BMA should move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying including physician-assisted dying.’

The motion was carried by 49 per cent of representatives, with 48 per cent against and 3 per cent abstaining.

This supersedes the association’s previous policy of opposing assisted dying, which had been in place since 2006. Being neutral means the BMA will not support or oppose a change in the law.

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

Appropriate position

CHISHOLM: Rights to object

BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm 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 object conscientiously 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 of our survey, which found that 93% of respondents supported this.’