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Life decisions – physician-assisted dying

The Doctor
Mag Feb 2020

A call to reconsider the BMA’s stance on physician-assisted dying has prompted it to survey its members on the best way forward. Jennifer Trueland reports

It’s one of the most contentious ethical issues we face – and doctors are at the heart of it.

Physician-assisted dying, sometimes called physician-assisted suicide, gives rise to strong views among supporters and opponents in the medical profession – and the public more broadly.

Following a motion passed at last year’s BMA annual representative meeting, the association is asking members what they think. The organisation represents doctors and medical students with a wide range of views on this issue, and so wants members to complete an online survey about what they think the BMA’s position should be.

‘This is a tremendously important issue, and one that provokes strong feelings,’ says BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm (pictured below).

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December 2019

‘We hope as many of our members as possible will respond to the survey so that we can ensure any future decisions on physician-assisted dying, and our work on this issue, are informed by what our members think.’


Polling members

The BMA’s policy is to oppose physician-assisted dying in all its forms. At last year’s ARM, doctors asked it to poll members on whether it should change this stance to adopt a neutral position with respect to a change of law on physician-assisted dying.

‘A position of neutrality would mean the BMA neither actively supported nor actively opposed a change in the law to permit physician-assisted dying,’ Dr Chisholm stresses. ‘It would not mean that we would be silent on the issue – we would continue to represent our members’ professional interests and concerns but without expressing support or opposition to such proposals.’

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Physician-assisted dying is illegal in all four countries of the UK, although there have been various attempts to change or challenge that. This includes private members’ bills (or their equivalents) at Westminster and Holyrood, and numerous challenges to the position through the courts.

All have been unsuccessful in changing the law, but at the same time have raised public awareness of the issues.


Doctors’ involvement

Some forms of physician-assisted dying are, however, legal in other jurisdictions, including Switzerland, where some UK citizens have chosen to travel to die. Others include the Netherlands and the state of Oregon in the USA. Legislation permitting some forms is also in place in other US states such as California, Washington (State and DC), Maine, Hawaii and New Jersey, and in Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg and two Australian states, Victoria and Western Australia.

‘The one thing that is common to all these pieces of legislation is that there is, to some degree, a requirement for doctors to be involved or consulted as part of the process,’ adds Dr Chisholm.

‘This underlines why it is such an important issue for the medical profession to debate and discuss.’

The BMA has prepared resources so that members can make an informed comment on the survey. These include:

  • A summary of the arguments for and against physician-assisted dying
  • A map of the situation elsewhere in the world background on the position in the UK
  • A document on the BMA’s policy position to date information about public and professional opinions on the issue information about the survey itself.

You can also listen to a discussion between Dr Chisholm and BMA policy lead on physician-assisted dying Ruth Campbell about the survey and some of the issues.


Email contact

Members will receive the survey by email in February, from Kantar, the independent research company conducting this survey on the BMA’s behalf.

If you haven’t received an email, visit the designated BMA webpage for information about who to contact to participate.

The results of the survey will not directly determine the BMA’s position but will be published ahead of this year’s ARM and used to inform discussion and debate on policy at that meeting.

BMA representative body chair Helena McKeown (pictured below), who chairs the ARM, wants as many as possible to participate.

‘The survey’s purpose is to reveal what our members – from all disciplines, branches of practice, stage of career, and geographical areas – think on this issue. This is vital because it means that when the RB is reflecting on the BMA’s position, it will have this information to hand. This information will also help us to respond to any future legislative proposals and put us in a stronger position to engage on your behalf in the event of any future legal change.

‘This is an important discussion for doctors, as well as the wider public, and we want you to have your say.’

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