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BMA moves to neutral stance on assisted dying

Dignity in Dying

5 min read

Doctors’ body to follow Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Nursing in adopting neutral position to represent range of members’ views on topic

Majority of doctors disagree with BMA’s longstanding opposition to assisted dying and half personally support law change, 2020 survey found

Decision comes as House of Lords prepares to debate Assisted Dying Bill next month, with consultation on Assisted Dying Bill in Scotland and debate on citizen’s jury recommendations in Jersey due in coming weeks

The British Medical Association (BMA) will move to a positon of neutrality on a change in the law on assisted dying, following a vote at its Annual Representative Meeting today (Tuesday 14 September 2021). The debate follows the largest ever survey of medical opinion on assisted dying last year, which found a majority (61%) of members disagreed with the BMA’s longstanding opposition to law change on assisted dying. The BMA will now join the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and other medical bodies in adopting a position of neutrality.

The decision comes as the House of Lords prepares to debate prospective assisted dying legislation next month (22 October 2021) for the first time in six years. The Assisted Dying Bill, brought by Chair of Dignity in Dying Baroness Meacher, would enable terminally ill, mentally competent adults to request assistance to die in a manner, timing and place of their choosing, subject to approval by two independent doctors and a High Court judge - a change supported by 84% of the British public. A consultation is also due to begin on an Assisted Dying Bill in Scotland in the coming weeks and the States of Jersey is set to debate recommendations for law change by a citizen’s jury later this year.

In 2019 Dr Jacky Davis, Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, proposed a successful motion calling on the BMA to survey its members for their views on assisted dying – something it had never done despite holding an official policy of opposition to law change for several years. It followed the Royal College of Physician’s decision in 2019 to adopt a neutral position after a survey of its own members views found a split in opinion.

As a result, in February 2020 BMA members were asked, among other questions on the topic, what the organisation’s position should be regarding a change in the law on assisted dying to allow doctors to prescribe drugs for patients to self-administer in order to end their own life. 40% said the BMA should support a change in the law, 21% said the BMA should take a neutral position and just 33% thought the BMA should maintain its opposition. When asked for their personal views on law change, 50% of doctors were in favour of law change on assisted dying with 39% opposed and 11% undecided.

Today a motion to move the BMA to a neutral stance “in order to represent the diversity of opinion” on assisted dying was passed at the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting, after 49% of the Representative Body (members who are elected or appointed to attend the Annual Meeting and vote on BMA policy) voted in favour, with 48% voting against and 3% abstaining (of 302 total votes).

Dr Jacky Davis, Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, said:

“The BMA should be commended for listening to its members and for adopting a position which now represents the range of views on assisted dying among doctors fairly and accurately. A neutral position promotes inclusion, respects diversity of thought and gives the BMA a seat at the table in this historic debate. It will enable our profession to contribute constructively to future legislation to help ensure it works for doctors, works for dying people and works for society as a whole.”

Alison Pickard, 64 from Nottinghamshire, a grandmother of 3 and nurse for more than 40 years, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2012. She said:

“As a former healthcare professional now living with a terminal illness, I am delighted that the BMA is taking a more balanced view on assisted dying. Personally, it would give me great reassurance and peace of mind to know that the excellent support I receive from my medical team could extend to allowing me to determine how, when and where I die. It is terminally ill people and their families who should be leading this discussion and it is right that medical organisations contribute constructively without actively blocking a change that so many patients desperately want.”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“This is an historic decision and a victory for common-sense. It brings the BMA in line with a growing number of medical bodies in the UK and around the world that truly represent the range of views that healthcare professionals hold on assisted dying.

“With the House of Lords, Holyrood and the States of Jersey due to debate assisted dying proposals in the coming weeks and months, it is essential that discussions are conducted fairly and based on facts. Last year’s BMA survey, the largest ever of medical opinion on assisted dying, proved that its stance of opposition was unrepresentative and undemocratic, silencing great swathes of its membership. It also revealed that more doctors now personally support law change than opposite it.

“By adopting a position of engaged neutrality the BMA can now proudly and accurately advocate on behalf of its members, while sending a message to Parliament that assisted dying is, rightly, an issue for society, where the views of dying people and their loved ones should be heard loud and clear.”