The BMA should resist attempts to neutralise it in the ‘Assisted Dying’ debate.

Attempts to push the BMA into a position of neutrality on legalisation of assisted suicide are in reality attempts to neutralise it in the debate and should be resisted

The ‘assisted dying’ lobbyists are out in force again.  Having disastrously lost their case in Parliament last year, the advocates of legalised assisted suicide are now trying – as they have tried before unsuccessully – to get the British Medical Association (BMA) to move from its opposition to assisted suicide to a stance of neutrality.  Surveys of medical opinion clearly show that only a minority of doctors believe they should be licensed to supply lethal drugs to terminally-ill patients.  A poll last year of 1,000 GPs revealed that only 14 per cent (1 in 7) would be prepared to consider a request for assisted suicide if such practices were to be legalised.

The lobbyists point to another question in the same poll, which asked whether the BMA – and other medical bodies, such as the Royal College of General Practitioners – should move to a stance of ‘studied neutrality’.  56 per cent of those questioned said Yes.  But, as anyone who watched the famous of ‘Yes,  Minister’ episode will know, the answers people give to pollsters are heavily influenced by the way the questions are asked.  This particular question is no exception.  It defined ‘studied neutrality’ as a position which ‘recognises and respects the diversity of personal and religious views’ and ‘encourages open discussion’.  Note the spin!  Neutrality is presented as being like other qualities – respect, diversity and open discussion – which people admire.  And, just for good measure, there is a suggestion thrown in that opposition is associated in some way with religion.

There is nothing whatever in the BMA’s policy of opposing assisted suicide which is incompatible with any of these qualities.  It does not prevent prevent individual doctors taking a different view and, when the BMA has just completed a year-long study into ‘End of Life Care and Physician-Assisted Dying’, it can hardly be accused of stiffling open discussion.  The truth is that the majority of doctors want nothing to do with giving their patients the means of suicide: doctors have a key role to play in suicide prevention.  Moreover, the report of the recent study states quite clearly that, when doctors were asked about assisted suicide, “the majority of impacts identified were negative and many doctors did not see being involved with physician-assisted dying as compatible with their understanding of their fundamental role and remit as a doctor”.

What is being proposed by the lobbyists – that doctors should be licensed by law to supply lethal drugs to some of their patients – strikes at the roots of clinical practice.  Of course there are doctors who take a different view: differences of opinion are normal in any professional organisation.  But, given the serious difficulties of reconciling physician-assisted suicide with medicine’s ‘first, do no harm’ principle and the worrying trends that are emerging in the few overseas jurisdictions that have gone down the ‘assisted dying’ road, it is difficult to see on what grounds the BMA should wash its hands of the matter and adopt a stance of neutrality – a move which would risk being misinterpreted outside the medical world as second thoughts.  Attempts to drive the BMA into neutrality are in reality attempts to neutralise and muzzle it.  They should be resisted.