BMA continues to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 28 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:997
  1. Kathryn Godfrey
  1. London

    The BMA continues to oppose legislation to allow assisted suicide for patients, despite other bodies that represent doctors now taking a neutral stance.

    During questioning last week by a House of Lords select committee on Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, representatives from the BMA said that the results of “consistent and regular” debates with members meant that the position of the association, which represents 80% of British doctors, remained unchanged.

    Giving evidence to the same committee the previous week the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners said they did not oppose the proposed legislation and they would take a neutral position.

    Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, told the committee that the BMA was in a different position to the colleges. She said, “The colleges have only discussed this issue in council meetings, whereas we have had major debates among our membership. They do not have our democratic process.”

    The BMA's opposition to physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia was outlined to the committee by Dr Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee. One concern was loss of trust. Dr Wilks said, “This legislation would create a different relationship between doctor and patient and, once established, could have unpredictable consequences.”

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    Dr Vivienne Nathanson and Dr Michael Wilks gave evidence to the House of Lords select committee

    Credit: ROB BELL

    He argued that the legislation could also have detrimental effects on the rights of some vulnerable patients. He said, “It is difficult to create a law that delivers a right to die without trespassing on the rights of vulnerable people who have not declared a wish to die.”

    Under questioning Dr Wilks acknowledged that the BMA's position would result in suffering and loss of autonomy among a small number of patients. Nevertheless he confirmed that for most BMA members the proposed legislation would be “a step too far.”

    Dr Wilks accepted that recent surveys, including one released last week by Medix UK (BMJ 2004;329: 939, 23 Oct), have shown that an increasing number of doctors are supporting physician assisted suicide over voluntary euthanasia, but he said that the BMA saw “no moral difference between the two.”

    Dr Nathanson said a lack of good palliative care could encourage patients to consider ending their life and called for improved provision. She said, “It's a sad fact that there is insufficient investment, so not every patient who would benefit is receiving palliative care. So it would be of great concern that if good palliative care is not available then patients could be persuaded to take another option.”

    Despite the BMA's continuing opposition to physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia Dr Wilks said that in his personal view legislation would come at some point. He said, “Some form of assisted death legislation is inevitable.”

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