A travesty of a consultation.

The Royal College of Physicians needs to focus on its role of supporting clinical excellence and not allow itself to be manipulated into playing politics

In an article in The Times this week Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson called for a halting and re-starting of a consultation of its members and fellows by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).  She described the process the College has launched as “a travesty of a consultation” and warned that it “risks bringing the College into disrepute as a professional body”.

So what’s going on here?  The RCP has embarked on yet another consultation about whether its members and fellows want physician-assisted suicide to be legalised and what position the College should take on this controversial issue.  At the moment the College is opposed to legalisation, a position adopted in 2006 and confirmed a little over four years ago in 2014.  As the majority of doctors don’t support legalisation, the likely result would be that the College would confirm its existing stance.

But that doesn’t find favour with a minority of activists who want to see an ‘assisted dying’ law.  So the College has been persuaded to change the rules.  Under the new rules the College declared that it would automatically adopt a position of neutrality unless either the supporters or the opponents of ‘assisted dying’ polled at least two-thirds of the total.  The two-thirds theshold was hurriedly lowered to 60 per cent following publication of Baroness Grey-Thompson’s article.  Since none of the three positions on offer – support, oppose and neutral – is likely to reach that threshold, the new default position of neutrality will kick in. 

In effect, that will disenfranchise both supporters and opponents.  The supporters of legalisation don’t mind this.  Indeed, it is they who favour the new rules.  They know they have no chance of persuading the RCP’s members and fellows to support legalisation.  But a neutral position, which involves a change from the College’s existing position, can be dressed up as ‘doctors move closer to assisted dying’.

It is almost beyond belief that a respected body like the RCP has allowed itself to be manoeuvred into this absurd position.  In the last (2014) consultation those opposed to ‘assisted dying’ were the largest group, as were those who voted that the College should remain opposed.  Under the new rules, though, their views will be discounted even if they are in the majority but they don’t reach the entirely-arbitrary and politically-motivated threshold.  The burden of proof has been reversed.

The College’s official reason for this nonsense is that neutrality will enable it to represent the views of all its members.  It can do that now.  There is nothing to prevent the College from pointing out that there is not complete unanimity among its members on this issue: that goes for any professional organisation.  But neutrality is a different matter: it sends the wholly misleading message to Parliament and the public that the medical profession is relaxed about being asked to hand lethal drugs terminally ill patients.  That is most certainly not the case.

The present consultation needs to be called in and revised, and fellows and members who are concerned about what is going on need to make their views known.