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News BMA annual representative meeting

BMA votes to poll members on its assisted dying stance

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 25 June 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l4398
  1. Richard Hurley
  1. Belfast

The BMA has voted to poll its members to ascertain their views on whether the association should adopt a neutral position on assisted dying rather than one against.

After a lively debate, representatives passed this part of the motion by 149 votes to 115, at their annual meeting in Belfast on 25 June.

The association’s current policy,1 reaffirmed at the 2016 annual meeting, is to oppose legalised physician assisted suicide for terminally ill people.

Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist, proposing the 2019 motion on behalf of the Islington division, said that even if everyone had access to the best hospice care at least 5000 people a year would die suffering in unrelieved pain.

Davis, who works for the pressure groups Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying and Dignity in Dying, told the meeting that doctors’ views on assisted dying varied widely and that the views of the many thousands of BMA members not present needed to be heard.

“Parliamentarians and our patients want to know what we feel about this,” she said. “To those who don’t want this question asked, I would ask you why. We didn’t get where we are as a profession by not asking questions because we’re afraid of the answer. Otherwise we’d still be sharpening our scalpels on our boots.”

The palliative care consultant Ilora Finlay, a member of the House of Lords active in campaigns against changing the law on assisted dying, said, “The real question is, ‘Do you, practising doctors, want to be licensed to provide lethal drugs that you might administer directly, or patients to deliberately foreshorten their life?’

“A neutral position signals to parliament that you as doctors would implement such change. [It] would leave every clinician affected.

“Society may be calling for assisted dying, but ask yourself, ‘Is this really a medical duty?’”

Ian Wilson, a consultant in pain medicine and anaesthesia and former chair of the BMA representative body, said that a poll of members would reduce a complex issue to “monochrome terms,” with no scope to consider “what ifs” and “yes buts.” He said that recent national experience showed the potential dangers of inappropriate plebiscites and that the proponents of the motion should respect the previous decision making of the representative body, to oppose a change in the law to permit assisted dying.

In voting for other parts of the motion, representatives overwhelmingly expressed support for “patient autonomy and good quality end of life care for all patients” and recognition that “not all patient suffering can be alleviated.”

After the vote Davis said, “Our patients have wanted this choice for decades, and we should be pleased that doctors are prepared to engage in the debate.”

An opinion poll this year by Populus for Dignity in Dying found that 84% of the British public wanted a change in the law to permit assisted dying in some circumstances.2

The Royal College of Physicians this year again polled its members’ views and in March announced that it would move to a neutral position on changing the law.3 Two fifths (43%) of respondents thought that the college should oppose a law change, 32% thought the college should support a law change, and 25% said the college should be neutral.

The Royal College of General Practitioners announced on 22 June that it will again poll its members on the matter.

Several European countries and US states offer legal medical assistance to people who want to die.



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