The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) announced on 10 January this year, its intention to poll its 35,000 members on assisted suicide. The poll commenced on 5 February and finished on 1 March 2019. The college last polled its members in 2014 when 44.4% of its membership thought the college should oppose a change in the legislation, 31% said the college should be neutral and 24.6% felt the college should support legislative change. (1) These results affirmed the college's position of opposition, a position the college clarified in 2018. (2)
One of the primary purposes of the new poll is to identify what the college's position on assisted suicide should be. However, the college has taken the unusual step of stating that after the poll the college will adopt a position of neutrality unless the results indicate a 60% supermajority for either support or opposition. The final results (published 21 March) showed little shift from the 2014 poll, only the support for a neutral position had shrunk to just 25%. (3) This has caused anger among many college members and fellows, 23 of whom signed a letter in The Times. A petition delivered to the college president contained 1,500 signatures opposing the RCP's actions. They accuse the RCP of playing into the hands of pro-assisted suicide lobbyists; Dignity in Dying has welcomed the RCP's intention to become neutral.
The framing of the poll has been called a 'sham' with a 'rigged outcome' by their ex-ethics committee chair. The RCP is facing the prospect of a judicial review. (4) The RCP has stated that a position of neutrality means they neither support or oppose any change in legislation and that neutrality will allow the college to represent the views of its members. Fellow and council member, Raymond Tallis, who has provided the RCP's argument for neutrality has also been quoted as saying 'I am an optimist and I believe that we shall bring these bodies round to an appropriate stance of neutrality and that, with this obstacle out of the way, Parliament may indeed come to support legislation in favour of assisted dying.' (5)
There is deep concern that in adopting neutrality the college may find itself in a position not dissimilar to that of the BMA, when they went neutral for one year and found themselves almost side-lined from the debate. (6)
Review by Rosemarie Anthony-Pillai, CMF Associate in Public Policy