Royal College of GPs will remain opposed to assisted suicide

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) will continue to oppose a change in law on assisted suicide, following a consultation of its members.   

The RCGP’s consultation, conducted independently by Savanta ComRes, was sent to almost 50,000 members, who were asked whether RCGP should change its current position of opposing a change in the law on assisted dying.

Just under half (47%) of those surveyed said the College should not change its position, while 40% said it should support a law change providing there is a regulatory framework and appropriate safeguarding processes in place.

11% of respondents said the RCGPs should be neutral, while 2% abstained.

The RCGP Council agreed that the survey results did not support a change in the RCGP’s existing position on assisted suicide.

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Assisted dying is a controversial topic and this was reflected in the responses to our consultation. However, the highest proportion of respondents said that the College should continue to oppose a change in the law on assisted dying…

“The role of the College now is to ensure that patients receive the best possible palliative and end of life care, and to this end we are working with Marie Curie and others to support this.”

In a victory for pro-life campaigners, the RGCP declared it will not review the College`s position on assisted suicide for at least five years unless there are significant developments on the issue.

The medical body last consulted members on the issue in 2013, when the majority said the college should remain opposed.

Currently, no professional medical body supports changing the law on assisted suicide, which is illegal in the UK.

However, activists have been attempting to introduce assisted suicide legislation to the UK through the courts, medical bodies and parliament.

The British Medical Association (BMA) is currently surveying its member’s views on assisted suicide.  The results of the BMA survey, which closes on 27 February, will be discussed at this year’s annual conference in June and could see the professional body changing its current policy on assisted suicide.

Currently, the BMA believes that “the ongoing improvement in palliative care allows patients to die with dignity … [and] insists that physician-assisted suicide … voluntary euthanasia … [and] non-voluntary euthanasia should not be made legal in the UK.” 

However, the BMA is now asking its 160,000 members:

“whether they believe the BMA should support, oppose, or take a neutral stance on a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe drugs for eligible patients to end their own life … [and] about a stance to a change in the law to permit doctors to administer drugs with the intention of ending an eligible patient’s life.”

The doctors’ union has had a policy opposing assisted suicide since the 1950s, but very briefly became neutral on the issue in 2005.

Since then, the BMA has been opposed to all forms of assisted suicide – a position they reaffirmed in 2016 at the organisation’s annual representative meeting.

In a letter published in The Times, a large group of prominent palliative care doctors have called on the BMA to uphold their duty of care and remain opposed to assisted suicide.

The Royal College of Physicians dropped its long-standing opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a 2019 membership survey, despite continued opposition to assisted suicide being the most favoured position among those surveyed. The change in stance from the college is currently the subject of a legal challenge.

In November, the High Court rejected to hold a judicial review of the current law on assisted suicide, with judges stating the court was “not an appropriate forum for the discussion of the sanctity of life”. The Court of Appeal rejected an attempt to challenge this decision last month.

Similarly, in 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled that Parliament was a “better forum” than the courts for determining the issue of legalising assisted suicide.

Parliament has consistently rejected attempts by the assisted suicide lobby to introduce assisted suicide, with 330 to 118 voting against introducing assisted suicide in 2015. 

Just last month, strong opposition from MPs resulted in the Government rejecting a call for review on assisted suicide, despite the best efforts from large pressure groups in favour of assisted suicide.

Additionally, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC has recently confirmed the Government has “no plans” to introduce assisted suicide legislation, saying: “Personally, I have grave doubts about the ability of legislation to be watertight when it comes to the potential for abuse.”

Assisted suicide pressure groups cite a poll that shows there is widespread support for legislation of assisted suicide, yet experts have heavily criticised the polling as deeply flawed. In fact, when asked questions that drill down into the merits of the debate, the percentage of those in support drops dramatically.