New doctors’ group challenges medical bodies’ opposition to assisted dying

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 05 October 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5498
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

UK doctors have set up a new group for health professionals to challenge the BMA and a number of royal colleges in their stance against assisted dying for terminally ill people and to push for a change in the law.

The group, called Dignity in Dying: Healthcare Professionals for Change, was set up by Ann McPherson, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, after an article she wrote in the BMJ last year generated interest in giving people who are dying the option of help to end their lives when they chose (BMJ 2009;339:b2827 doi:10.1136/bmj.b2827).

Dr McPherson, who is a fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said she wants the royal colleges to have a more informed debate about assisted suicide.

Currently the BMA, the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Royal College of Physicians have all adopted policies against changing the 1961 Suicide Act, which forbids any assistance.

Although the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Pathologists veer towards a neutral stance on the issue, both colleges expressed concern about Joel Joffe’s private member’s bill to enable assisted dying for people with unbearable suffering before it was thrown out of the House of Lords in 2006 (BMJ 2006;332:1169, doi:10.1136/bmj.332.7551.1169). Only the Royal College of Nursing currently holds a neutral stance, changed from one of opposition after consulting its members in 2009.

Dr McPherson said, “By taking a hostile approach to a change in the law on assisted dying, medical bodies such as the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians are failing to adequately reflect the views of all their members. Many of us believe that dying patients should not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life. Alongside access to good quality end of life care, we believe that terminally ill, mentally competent patients should be able to choose an assisted death, subject to safeguards.”

The group is supported by Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for greater choice, control, and access to services for patients at the end of life and has over 25 000 supporters. This year’s British social attitudes survey found that 82% people support assisted dying.

Raymond Tallis, a philosopher and former geriatrician who changed his mind in 2003 to support a change in the law after studying the evidence, said that there is “total frustration” among doctors, whose professional bodies no longer represent the views of 60-70% of their membership on this issue.

Professor Tallis said he was “strongly in favour of assisted dying, partly as a result of thinking much harder about it.” He said that many assumptions about introducing legislation to support assisted dying, such as a potential loss of trust between doctors and patients and a reduced emphasis on palliative care, are simple not borne out by experience. In fact the opposite is true, he said, with countries like the Netherlands showing a rise in trust in the medical profession since the law changed.


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5498


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