Review by Peter Saunders , CMF Chief Executive
The BMA has overwhelmingly rejected a motion calling for it to adopt a neutral position on 'assisted dying' at its annual representative meeting at Bournemouth on 27 June. In so doing it has upheld its opposition to any change in the law to allow either assisted suicide or euthanasia.
Members of the pressure group 'Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying' (HPAD) (2) had flooded the BMA agenda with nine almost identical motions calling for neutrality from which the agenda committee had crafted a composite motion to be debated.
The move was part of a carefully orchestrated campaign (3) aimed at neutralising medical opposition ahead of a new parliamentary bill calling for legalisation. HPAD is closely affiliated to Dignity in Dying, the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society. It had also been supported by the British Medical Journal editorial which gave international prominence to a poll allegedly showing that 62% of doctors supported neutrality. (4)
However the wording of this poll conducted by Doctors.Net is now under investigation by the Market Research Society (5) and a subsequent BMJ Online Poll showed that 83% of respondents were against the move. (6)
Motion 332 read as follows: 'That this Meeting i) believes that assisted dying is a matter for society and not for the medical profession; ii) believes that the BMA should adopt a neutral position on change in the law on assisted dying'.
The proposer, Prof Tallis, argued that the current situation was 'morally repugnant' and said that the BMA should adopt a policy of 'studied neutrality'. (7) But Baroness Finlay said that the public would not understand why the BMA won't express a view on the prescription of potentially lethal drugs.
BMA Ethics Chairman Tony Calland argued that it was important doctors stayed engaged in the debate whilst BMA Chairman Hamish Meldrum added that a position of neutrality was the worst of all positions and urged the meeting to reject the motion.
Both parts of the motion were subsequently lost. In rejecting this move the BMA has sent out a strong message that doctors must play a leading role in this debate which could otherwise be far too easily swayed by celebrity endorsement and media outlets. (8) I have previously considered the arguments against neutrality in more detail than is possible here. (9)
Lord Falconer, in conjunction with Dignity in Dying and the All Party Parlimentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, has since published a new bill (10) aiming to legalise assisted suicide for adults who are mentally competent and terminally ill which he hopes to introduce into the House of Lords next year. Meanwhile there is a consultation on the 'safeguards' in the draft bill which closes on 22 November.
The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance and it is imperative that Christian doctors stay engaged in this debate both by opposing any change in the law and in championing good palliative care.