News Analysis

Overlooked: Doctors resign in row over assisted suicide

The RCP (Wikimedia)

What happened?

Three members of Britain’s Royal College of Physicians have resigned their positions after the organisation changed its stance on assisted suicide. Professor Albert Weale, chairman of the ethics committee, stood down along with two of his colleagues. He said that the RCP had effectively ignored the committee.

Why was it under-reported?

The story may seem to be a matter of arcane procedural detail. The organisation had been officially opposed to assisted suicide. But this year it surveyed its members – with a catch. There were three options – in favour, opposed or neutral – but unless one option gained 60 per cent, the stance would switch to neutral. So although 43 per cent voted for “opposed”, the 25 per cent who voted “neutral” got their way.

This method was described by Professor Weale as having “considerable problems of procedural unfairness”.

What will happen next?

The resignations are likely to damage the RCP’s reputation. In his resignation letter, seen by the Daily Telegraph, Weale said that his committee had not been offered any justification of the way the survey was conducted. He wrote: “There is simply no point in the committee offering reasoned positions if they are ignored.” In a response, RCP president Andrew Goddard said that their advice was “highly valued”.

The episode will add momentum to a legal challenge which some doctors are now preparing.