A large group of prominent palliative care doctors have called on the British Medical Association (BMA) to uphold their duty of care and remain opposed to assisted suicide.
The call comes as the BMA has launched a new survey of its members on the issue. The results of the BMA poll, 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.”
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.
However, the BMA will now ask 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.”
In a letter published in The Times, over 50 palliative care doctors and healthcare professionals said the existing law, which prohibits any form of assisted suicide or euthanasia, “ensures that doctors continue to uphold their duty of care, avoiding the inherent risks to sick and vulnerable patients that physician assisted suicide would bring”.
The doctors also used the letter to highlight how safeguards are ignored and eligibility criteria is soon expanded in countries that allow assisted suicide. Referencing Canada, the doctors say:
“Canada’s Federal government has consulted on expanding assisted dying laws to the mentally ill, to ‘mature minors’ and individuals whose deaths are not imminent. Meanwhile Canadian hospices are facing pressure to provide assisted death or risk losing their funding.”
Activists have been attempting to introduce assisted suicide legislation to the UK through the courts, medical bodies and parliament.
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 process used by the College is currently subject to a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, the results of a recent poll by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) are due to be released later this month.
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.
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.
The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said the government had no plans to launch an inquiry into current laws preventing euthanasia.
He added: “Personally, I have grave doubts about the ability of legislation to be watertight when it comes to the potential for abuse.”
Palliative care doctors letter in full:
Sir, Today the BMA launches a consultation surveying its members’ views on physician-assisted dying. Challenging individual cases have prompted calls to change the law. However, the existing law ensures that doctors continue to uphold their duty of care, avoiding the inherent risks to sick and vulnerable patients that physician-assisted suicide would bring. The NHS is already overloaded, struggling to serve an expanding ageing population without adequate funding for palliative care.
In other jurisdictions with legalised assisted dying, the picture is disturbing, and the World Medical Association recently reiterated its opposition to doctor-assisted dying. Canada’s federal government has consulted on expanding assisted dying laws to the mentally ill, “mature minors” and individuals whose deaths are not imminent. Meanwhile, Canadian hospices are facing pressure to provide assisted death or risk losing their funding. We understand that the medical profession cannot and should not dictate the law but are concerned that the public’s trust in doctors and medical institutions will lead our patients to equate assisted dying with good end-of-life care, as in Canada. We hope that the BMA will continue to oppose the involvement of doctors and that assisted dying will not become a medical intervention in the UK.
Prof Bill Noble, Consultant in Palliative Care; Dr Jim Gilbert, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr David Randall, Registrar in Renal Medicine; Dr Alexander Cary GP Trainee; Dr Dominic Whitehouse, Consultant Physician in Palliative and Respiratory Medicine; Prof Rob George, Medical Director and Consultant in Palliative Care; Dr Alison Brooks, GP; Dr Aiofe Gleeson, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Robert Twycross, Emeritus Clinical Reader in Palliative Medicine; Prof David Oliver, Professor of Palliative Medicine; Prof Simon Noble, Professor of Palliative Medicine; Prof Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, Professor of Intellectual Disability and Palliative Care; Dr Amy Proffitt, Deputy Medical Director; Dr Mark Taubert, Consultant and Lead Clinician in Palliative Medicine; Dr Marina Malthouse, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Craig Gannon, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Rosemary Anthony-Pillai, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Kevin O’Kane, Consultant in Acute Internal Medicine; Dr Melody Redman, Junior Doctor in Paediatrics; Dr Fiona McCormick, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Simon Anderson, Consultant Gastroenterologist; Dr Angela Campbell, Consultant Geriatrician; Dr Luigi Camporata, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine; Dr Peter Diem, Consultant Geriatrician; Dr Terrence Gibson, Consultant in Acute Internal Medicine; Dr Philip Howard, Consultant Gastroenterologist; Dr Mustafa Kadam, Registrar in Acute Internal and Stroke Medicine; Dr Iain Kennedy, GP; Dr Taryn Pile, Consultant Nephrologist; Dr Sanna Khawaja, Registrar in internal Medicine; Dr Ranjababu Kulasegaram, Consultant in HIV Medicine; Dr Roshan Navin, Consultant in Acute Internal Medicine; Dr Aysha Nazir, Registrar in Emergency Medicine; Dr Laura O’Sullivan, Registrar in Acute Internal and Intensive Care; Dr Farica Patel, Registrar in Acute Internal Medicine; Dr Richard Rawlins, Retired Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon; Dr Shabaz Roshan, Consultant Geriatrician; Dr Nadia Short, Consultant in Acute Internal Medicine; Dr Fiona Stephen, Trainee in Emergency Medicine; Dr Duncan Brown, Medical Director and Consultant in Palliative Care; Dr Ollie Minton, Clinical Lead in Palliative Medicine; Dr Claud Regnard, Honorary Consultant in Palliative Care Medicine; Dr Chris Farnham, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Baroness Sheila Hollins, Retired Consultant Psychiatrist; Dr Ellie Smith, Consultant in Palliative Medicine and Clinical Lead for Palliative Care; Dr Sarah Cox Consultant and Lead Clinician in Palliative Medicine; Dr Idris Baker, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Dr Seamus Coyle, Community Consultant in Palliative Care; Dr David Brooks, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Prof Scott Murray, Emeritus Professor of Primary Palliative Care; Dr Juliet Spiller, Consultant in Palliative Medicine; Prof Marie Fallon, Professor of Palliative Medicine