Assisted suicide has never attracted the support of a majority of doctors in Britain, but a survey by the BMA, which represents more than 150,000 doctors and 19,000 medical students, suggested that opinions may be shifting. A fifth of eligible members – 29,007 – took part in the survey, so the result is inconclusive.
Of those who did take part, 59 per cent of those responding said they support changing the law to allow terminally ill and incurably suffering adults the option of a legal assisted death. 39 per cent took the opposite view. 40 per cent said the BMA itself should actively support such a change in the law, with just 33 per cent opposed, and 21 per cent neutral. More than 10,000 doctors indicated they would be willing to participate actively in assisting suicide if the law were changed. (Read the BMA’s full results.)
The BMA may now decide to review its stance on assisted dying at its next policy-making meeting in September 2021.The survey results are not isolated; yesterday the Irish Dail voted to move forward on proposals to legalise assisted dying, and a national referendum on assisted dying is scheduled to take place in New Zealand later this month.
Members were asked whether they believe the BMA should actively support, actively oppose, or neither actively support nor actively oppose (i.e. take a neutral stance on) a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe drugs for eligible patients to self-administer to end their own life. ‘Four in ten (40 per cent) surveyed members expressed the view that the British Medical Association (BMA) should actively support attempts to change the law, one in three (33%) favoured opposition, and one in five (21%) felt the BMA should adopt a neutral position, neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs.’ This means a majority opted for an end to the current policy of opposition, and a move to at least neutrality, on a position that would match the law in Switzerland. Further, ‘Half, or fifty per cent, of surveyed members personally believed that there should be a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. Four in ten, 39 per cent, were opposed, a further one in ten, 11 per cent, undecided.’
Care Not Killing, an association of pro-life organisations opposed to assisted dying, issued the following statement from its chief executive, Dr Gordon Macdonald:
We note the results of the British Medical Association poll on assisted dying. We will continue to study the results of the poll, but it is clear that, as in recent similar surveys, we are seeing strongest opposition to changing the law from those medics actually working most closely with terminally ill, elderly and disabled patients, compared to those who work in other non-related fields. These doctors are concerned about the discriminatory message that singling out terminally ill and disabled people would send. As Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson said, ‘Legalising assisted suicide will only serve to reinforce deep seated prejudices that the lives of sick and disabled people aren’t worth as much as other people’s’.
Once again there appears to be a difference between practising and non-practising doctors. The largest percentage of those doctors at the coal face of caring for the elderly and terminally ill, who work in Palliative Care, Geriatric Medicine and General Practice continue to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, whereas retired doctors and those who have never practiced medicine because they are students or do not hold a license to practice, remain more supportive.
Indeed, 70% of Palliative Care doctors opposed the BMA supporting a change in the law to allow physician assisted suicide and 44% of geriatricians were opposed to the BMA supporting assisted suicide whilst only 27% were in favour. Some 40% of GPs opposed BMA support for physician assisted suicide whilst only 34% were in favour of it. Moreover, the survey shows that the largest group of doctors opposes the BMA supporting the legalisation of euthanasia. Of those who responded to the survey, 40% want to oppose, whilst only 30% voted for support, in relation to the BMA’s stance on euthanasia.”
Dr Mcdonald continued: “We welcome the fact that many active medics have repeatedly rejected the mendacious claims made by those pushing for this change, namely that legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia can be done with safeguards and would not put pressure, real or perceived, on vulnerable people to end their lives prematurely.”
“They have seen what happens in the small number of jurisdictions that have gone down this dangerous path – places like Oregon and Washington. These two US states are held up as the model to copy, but in both, a majority of those opting to end their lives cite fear of being a burden as among their key reasons, and others talk about financial concerns. While the list of conditions that qualify for the lethal cocktail of barbiturates continues to grow, some experts have warned that allowing assisted dying might also be normalising suicide in the general population. Suicide rates are, after all, a third higher in Oregon than the US average.
In Canada, last year a Court struck down the requirement that a person be terminally ill before they qualify for euthanasia. This followed the case of Alan Nichols, a former school caretaker who was physically healthy, but struggled with depression. His life was ended by lethal injection in July. Roger Foley, meanwhile, was repeatedly offered the drugs to kill himself, while being denied the social care to live a dignified life, due to the cost.
“Closer to home, we see how laws introduced in the Netherlands or Belgium, which were supposed to be limited to mentally competent terminally ill adults, have been extended to non-mentally competent adults and children, profoundly disabled people, and even those with treatable psychiatric problems such as depression and anorexia.”
Dr Macdonald concluded: “A recent report published in the Journal of Clinical Ethics suggested that legalising assisted suicide could release cost savings and an increase in organs available for transplant.
“The current laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia exist to protect those who are sick, elderly, depressed or disabled from feeling obliged to end their lives. They protect those who have no voice against exploitation and coercion and those who care for them who might come under pressure to conserve scarce resources. They do not need changing.”
“In terms of allowing doctors to administer the drugs, ‘Four in ten, 40 per cent surveyed members expressed the view that the BMA should actively oppose attempts to change the law to permit doctors to administer life-ending drugs. Three in ten favoured support, and 23 per cent felt the BMA should adopt a neutral stance of neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law.’ This again represents a majority opting for an end to the current policy of opposition, and a move to at least neutrality.