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Doctors vote to poll members on assisted dying

The medical profession’s view on assisted dying has been much in the news of late.

It’s an area of intense debate and often polar-opposite viewpoints, and unsurprisingly so.

There can be few debates so contentious. But it’s not one the profession is shying away from. It’s quite the reverse.

Just last week, the Royal College of GPs announced plans to consult its members on whether there should be change in the law on assisted dying.

This, just months after the Royal College of Physicians dropped its opposition to it and adopted a ‘neutral position’ – a repositioning which caused much consternation.

The RCP faced a judicial review but this was turned down by the high court.

A separate challenge has been launched against the decision of the Charity Commission to refuse permission for a legal challenge to the RCP under charity law.

The Charity Commission said in a statement: 'We are aware of concerns over a poll conducted by the RCP. We do not have an active case at this time, as there is a potential legal action relating to this poll ongoing. Following the conclusion of this potential action, we will engage with the trustees to determine next steps in line with our regulatory framework. We expect all charities to ensure that significant decisions are properly thought out, in line with the principles of good decision-making.'


Ask the doctors

This week, it was the turn of the doctors at the BMA’s policy-making conference. They had agreed to carry out their own poll of members on whether to adopt a ‘neutral position’ with respect to a change in the law on assisted dying.

The association is opposed to assisted dying, a position which will remain unchanged until a decision is made to the contrary, BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm (pictured below) told its annual representative meeting in Belfast.

The results of the poll will inform a future decision on policy.

ARM 2019 Annual Representative Meeting Report Medical ethics John Chisholm

The call to poll members was passed after 56 per cent of members of the representative body who voted agreed to the move versus 44 per cent who voted against it.

It was made by London-based consultant radiologist Jacky Davis (pictured below), chair of the campaign group Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying and a board member of Dignity in Dying. 

‘Over recent years, two things have become conflated: the policy of medical organisations and what most doctors think,’ Dr Davis told the meeting.

ARM 2019 Annual Representative Meeting Report Medical Ethics Motion 57 Assisted dying

‘Assisted dying is a contentious issue. But there’s a spectrum of views and we need to hear them. I’m suggesting that most people deserve a voice on this historic issue.

'Let’s show that we trust our members to get this right.’


Views and opinion

A substantial minority of doctors opposed the polling of members. Some raised the prospect of the message that a neutral position would give out, if the BMA were to switch to that in the future.

However, for Ian Wilson, a consultant in pain medicine and anaesthesia, the issue was about whether a poll was the best way to inform the BMA’s position.

‘On speaking about this motion you should not draw any conclusions about my views on assisted dying,’ he said.

‘You should, however, read plenty into it about how we make decisions, particularly on complex issues.

‘If it was structured to engage complex views and opinion, then I would say it’s worth spending money on. But it isn’t that.

'Don’t be hoodwinked into mimicking other organisations’ mistakes. There are occasions when plebiscites are right. This is not one of them.’

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