This article was published by Dr Peter Saunders on his blog on June 20, 2016.
Tomorrow, 21 June, the Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) of the British Medical Association (BMA) will consider two motions on assisted suicide.
The BMA is the UK's professional association and registered trade union for doctors and currently has 170,000 members.
It has been opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia for every year of its history with the exception of 2005-6 when it was neutral for just twelve months.
The first motion (79 on the agenda): affirms that:
'it is not appropriate at this time to debate whether or not to change existing BMA policy'.
Only if this is not passed will debate take place on the second motion (80):
'that this meeting believes that the BMA should adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying'.
A total of 29 motions were put forward on this issue - of which 21 upheld current BMA policy and only 8 opposed it; 27 motions did not make the cut of the agenda committee.
The use of the term 'assisted dying' is especially interesting as it is a form of words developed by the pro-euthanasia lobby that is vaguely defined and has no meaning in law. So it raises the question as to what the BMA would actually be going neutral on?
British parliaments have consistently resisted any move to legalise any form of assisted suicide or euthanasia. There have been a dozen unsuccessful attempts in the last twelve years. Last year the Marris Bill in the House of Commons and the Harvie Bill in the Scottish Parliament were defeated by 330-118 and 82-36 respectively.
The majority of doctors are opposed to a change in the law. Opinion polls show an average of 65% doctors opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide and/or euthanasia with the remainder undecided or in favour. The Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners and British Geriatrics Society are officially opposed.
82% of Association for Palliative Medicine members oppose a change in the law, with 72% saying a bill allowing assisted suicide even for imminently dying people would have an adverse effect on the delivery of palliative care. Amongst all doctors, these voices carry the greatest weight in this debate due to their understanding of the vulnerability of dying patients and their knowledge of treatments to alleviate their symptoms.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are contrary to all historic codes of medical ethics, including the Hippocratic Oath, the Declaration of Geneva, the International Code of Medical Ethics and the Statement of Marbella. Neutrality would be a quantum change for the profession and against the international tide.
Furthermore, neutrality on this particular issue would give assisted suicide a status that no other issue enjoys. Doctors, quite understandably, are strongly opinionated and also have a responsibility to lead. The BMA is a democratic body which takes clear positions on a whole variety of health and health-related issues. Why should assisted suicide and euthanasia enjoy a position which no other issue shares, especially when doctors will actually be the ones carrying it out?
Furthermore, to drop medical opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia at a time of economic austerity could be highly dangerous. Many families and the NHS itself are under huge financial strain and the pressure vulnerable people might face to end their lives so as not to be a financial (or emotional) burden on others is potentially immense.
Ed: The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is currently reviewing its position also as part of their five-yearly policy review mechanisms.