In a significant shift, the trade union for doctors in the United Kingdom, is no longer officially opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.
In a Sept. 14 announcement, the British Medical Association adopted a “neutral” stance on the issue, following a vote at its annual representative meeting. A plurality of representatives, 49%, were in favor of moving to the “neutral” position, while 48% were opposed and 3% abstained.
With its new official position, the association will neither campaign for nor against policies that would legalize various forms of euthanasia. It had previously been opposed to assisted suicide since 2006.
John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) medical ethics committee, noted in a Sept. 14 statement that “far from remaining silent on the issue, we will continue to represent the views, interests and concerns expressed by our members.”
Chisolm noted a responsibility to uphold conscience rights for doctors, should doctor-prescribed suicide become legal in the United Kingdom.
“Assisted dying is a highly emotive and sensitive topic that inspires a broad spectrum of views and opinions both across the wider public and among the medical profession, for whom any change of law would have a profound impact,” he said.
In the United Kingdom, “assisted dying,” “euthanasia,” and “physician-assisted suicide” are illegal. Residents seeking to end their lives in these procedures must travel to the Swiss clinic Dignitas. In 2019, 42 people from Great Britain traveled to Dignitas to end their lives, which was an increase from 24 in 2018.
The British doctors’ association was moved to consider changing its official position on the matter following a survey of members published in October 2020. According to the survey, 40% of respondents said the organization “should actively support attempts to change the law,” and 21% of respondents argued for the “neutral” position on assisted suicide. One-third of respondents advocated for the association to maintain its opposition stance.
Furthermore, half of the respondents said that the United Kingdom should allow for doctors to prescribe drugs that would kill their patients.
The recent vote concerned a motion stating, “In order to represent the diversity of opinion demonstrated in the survey of its membership, the BMA should move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying including physician-assisted dying.”
With a “neutral” position on assisted suicide, the BMA joins the Royal College of Nursing as well as the Royal College of Physicians. The Royal College of Nursing adopted a neutral position on the issue in 2009, while the Royal College of Physicians did so 10 years later in 2019.
Numerous attempts to legalize assisted suicide in the United Kingdom have failed, most recently in 2015. Parliament, however, is once again considering whether or not to legalize the practice.
A bill sponsored by Molly Meacher, Baroness Meacher, would permit physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with fewer than six months to live, subject to the approval of two doctors and a high court judge. Meacher is a crossbencher and chair of Dignity in Dying, which advocates for euthanasia and assisted suicide in the U.K.
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