Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Taking the final step: changing the law on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide

Changes in BMA policy on assisted dying

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 22 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:686
  1. Ann Sommerville, head of ethics (
  1. 1BMA, London WC1H 9JP

    Doctors in the United Kingdom can accompany their patients every step of the way, up until the last. The law stops them helping their patients take the final step, even if that is the patient's fervent wish. Next month's debate in the House of Lords could begin the process of changing the law. To help doctors decide where they stand we publish a range of opinions


    In June 2005, the BMA became the third UK medical organisation to withdraw its opposition to the legalisation of assisted dying. Despite its history of opposition, delegates at the annual representative meeting voted narrowly to leave the matter to parliament. The royal colleges of general practitioners and physicians withdrew opposition in October 2004, saying it was a matter for society but stressing that neutrality was not support for assisted dying.1 2 However, the colleges are reviewing their stance because of criticism from members. This paper considers the events leading up to the change in BMA policy and its implications for future work surrounding the issue.

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    Barometer of changing views?

    Only months before the debate at the annual representative meeting that changed BMA policy, the BMA gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in which it firmly opposed any change in the law.3 The vote thus may seem like a sudden reversal of policy, but cracks in BMA opposition had been gradually developing.

    Recent BMA policy has acknowledged a wide spectrum of views within the profession. A debate at the annual representative meeting in 1997 approved a policy opposing any legal change “for the time being.” That rider indicated that the matter was not closed and, despite being repeatedly knocked back, opponents of the status quo continued to raise it at annual meetings …

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