News Analysis

This assisted suicide poll has become a right royal shambles

(Getty)

Four doctors last week applied to the High Court (pictured) for a judicial review of the way a survey into assisted suicide was carried out by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), their professional organisation.

It is an expensive business and the four have launched a crowd-funding campaign to help them to generate at least £40,000 so that they can go to court in confidence.

One of them, Dr Dermot Kearney, a Gateshead cardiologist and president of the Catholic Medical Association, has accused the RCP of “gerrymandering” and conducting a “rigged” survey so that traditional opposition of the college to assisted suicide – upheld by 58 per cent of members in a survey of 2014 – can be torn up.

Another, Dr David Randall, a London-based registrar in renal medicine, says the college has the political motivations of silencing “the voice of the majority of doctors who oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide” and of providing “tacit support to a campaign to change the law”.

The RCP disagrees. “Should the RCP adopt a neutral position, that does not signal ‘tacit support’ for a campaign to change the law,” said a spokesman. “Rather it allows
the college to reflect the fact that there are strongly differing views in medicine, just as there are in society.”

Of course, the college is free to ascertain the views of its members on any subject. But in this instance, it has declared that it will be neutral on assisted suicide unless a supra-majority of at least 60 per cent of votes opposing the practice is obtained.

Such a bar might be attainable in a poll with binary questions but in this survey, respondents are asked three questions, not two – if they are opposed, in favour or neutral – rendering such a threshold practically impossible to reach.

The four doctors have filed legal papers accusing the RCP of “irrationality” and a “breach of legitimate expectation” in the conduct of the poll, which closed on March 1, and a judge is now likely to determine if the RCP has behaved legally in the way it has carried out the poll of its 35,000 members.

The results were due to be published on Thursday March 21, but the judicial review might delay this until the legal process has run its course.

If the poll is found to be illegal then the RCP will have to conduct another by more conventionally democratic standards.

Some people may assert that the religious persuasions of those in the group might explain its motivations – especially since they include Dr Adrian Treloar, a psychiatrist and a Catholic who was among the medics who blew the whistle on abuses carried out under the Liverpool Care Pathway several years ago. However, it is not difficult to find other doctors with no religious persuasions who are equally astonished by the behaviour of the RCP.

They include Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a professor of palliative medicine and Deputy Speaker in the Lords, who said she had not encountered a demand for a supra-majority to uphold the status quo “anywhere in the world”.

“It is a really dangerous precedent because it means that any rogue group can come in and say, ‘You have got to have a supra-majority to continue as you have in the past’,” she said.

Baroness Finlay shares additional concerns with other doctors about multiple voting in the poll. Some doctors are reported to have boasted to colleagues that they have voted at least three times, and Baroness Finlay tested the system herself by voting twice. She said that her multiple vote went undetected. She complained to the RCP, which admitted the irregularities while promising to address them.

The inherent flaws stem from the use of a webpage inviting the respondent to enter their General Medical Council number. Critics claim that there is nothing to prevent anyone entering random numbers to vote repeatedly and fraudulently.

The RCP has promised that duplicates will be removed, but distinguishing the authentic votes from the fraudulent may be easier said than done. The college intends, for instance, to screen votes against computer IP addresses, but fraudulent votes could still be registered from additional devices in homes, offices and shared spaces, such as libraries.

There is no suggestion the system was designed to permit fraudulent votes or that a group with a pro-euthanasia agenda is exploiting such weaknesses. The defects are more shambolic than cynical.

Yet if the process is open to multiple voting then the survey is at risk of being hijacked and producing a false result.

A defective system should not be used to gauge views on any subject, and it could prove a serious mistake to resort to such a system to collect opinions that touch on matters of life or death.

The design of this poll, with its arbitrary demand for a supra-majority and its failure to anticipate voter fraud, seems unworthy of a royal college. No wonder prominent medics say it should be scrapped.

Details of the legal challenge, and the chance to donate to the crowdfunding campaign, can be found at gofundme.com/rcp-poll-challenge