Intended for healthcare professionals


BMA annual meeting: Doctors vote to maintain opposition to assisted dying

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 22 June 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3486
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. Belfast

Doctors at the BMA’s annual representatives meeting in Belfast have voted 63% to 37% for the association to maintain its opposition to assisted dying, in response to a motion urging it to adopt a neutral stance on the issue.

The debate went ahead after representatives voted 50:50 on an earlier motion proposed by Andrew Mowat that it should not take place.1 He argued that MPs in the Scottish parliament and the House of Commons had recently rejected bills on physician assisted dying and that the issue had been debated at seven of the last 10 BMA annual meetings.

“The issue of [physician assisted dying] re-emerges as a ‘neverendum,’” Mowat told the conference. “The divisions which exist are not healed by further debate. Adopting a neutral position is a trap. When a country’s medical association moves to neutrality then it is swiftly followed by legalisation [of physician assisted dying].”

But Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, argued for the debate to be allowed to take place. “Since when does the BMA accept the government view as its own? Since when does the BMA not discuss something because the government doesn’t agree with its view? By not discussing this issue we are turning our backs on our patients now and in the future. It is our duty as doctors to contribute to the debate and to discuss this issue year in, year out,” she said.

With the debate on changing the BMA’s stance on assisted dying allowed to go ahead, Alex Freeman, who proposed the motion, argued that by adopting a neutral stance the BMA would be a “listening organisation.” Currently, she said, “When it comes to people talking about their death somehow we close down [the conversation] that doctors are encouraged to have with their patients when patients are making decisions,” she said.

Jacky Davis, chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, told the conference that adopting a neutral stance would “honestly reflect the wide range of views of our patients.”

Those speaking against changing the BMA’s stance on assisted dying argued that the evidence had not changed and that the focus should be on better palliative care.

William Sapwell warned representatives to beware “stepwise extension” of the law as had happened in other countries such as Belgium, where terminally children have been able to access euthanasia since 2014.2

After the vote Ian Wilson, BMA representative body chair, said, “Doctors appreciate the strongly held views both across society and their profession on both sides of this complex and sensitive issue.

“By engaging with doctors and members of the public in an 18 month long project, we have compiled a comprehensive body of qualitative research to look at the wider context of the issue and enable members to have informed discussions at this year’s conference.

“This work will still continue, and we will also be holding a special open discussion this week during which doctors will be able to share their views on some of the more complex and practical issues doctors would face if assisted dying were permitted in the UK.”


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