Scotland Northern Ireland England Wales

Last updated:

Assisted dying bill prompts doctors' debate

The BMA should ask doctors and medical students about their views on physician-assisted dying, a conference has agreed.

handsThe BMA retired members forum last week said doing this would ensure the association’s existing policy in this area accurately reflected the opinion of its membership.

The association opposes all forms of assisted dying and supports current legislation, which allows compassionate and ethical care for the dying. 

It also supports the establishment of high-quality palliative care services for all to enable patients to die with dignity.

Peers are due to vote on a bill drawn up by former lord chancellor Lord Falconer to legalise assisted dying.

Neutral stance

Former Royal College of Surgeons of England president Sir Terence English said the BMA should adopt a neutral position on physician-assisted dying.

He said: ‘Physician-assisted dying applies only to terminally ill, mentally competent individuals and allows the dying patient — after meeting strict legal safeguards — to have the option of … life-ending medication.’

He added: ‘The debate has often become stereotyped as an argument between those who favour patient choice and those who campaign to place a higher value on patient safety. But it’s my view that [with] the appropriate safeguards contained in [Lord Falconer’s] bill, we can allow both.’

BMA president-elect Baroness Finlay of Llandaff said neutrality was a euphemism for opening the door to physician-assisted dying.

‘We do not end the lives of our patients,’ she insisted. ‘We may stop treatments but we do not deliberately foreshorten their lives.’

Life and death

Baroness Finlay said patients trusted doctors to provide them with the best treatment and to improve the quality of life for those with terminal illnesses, but this was difficult if doctors were also planning options for a patient’s death. 

She said doctors should explore with the patient ways of improving their symptoms and quality of life.

‘So often we see patients who feel they cannot go on but when their symptoms have improved and they have a good night’s sleep they want to go on,’ Baroness Finlay said.

Doctors at the forum expressed concerns about the expectation bestowed upon doctors if physician-assisted deaths became legal. 

Devon retired consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon Richard Rawlins questioned whether the bill went against the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm.

A matter for all

Jim Applyard ARM 2013Kent retired consultant paediatrician Jim Appleyard (pictured below) said it was difficult for the BMA to adopt a neutral position to assisted dying when it is they who will be required to assist.

The RMF agreed that the BMA should recognise assisted dying as a matter for society and not just the medical profession alone.

The forum also drew retired doctors’ attention to a poll commissioned by Dignity in Dying, which found 33 per cent of 1,001 GPs were in favour of a physician-assisted death for themselves.

 Find out more about the BMA's views on assisted dying

 Find out more about the BMA retired members forum

The story so far