Disabled activists have welcomed the decision of doctors to vote strongly against relaxing their union’s position on physician-assisted suicide.
The British Medical Association (BMA) voted by 63 per cent to 37 per cent this week at its annual representative meeting (ARM) in Belfast to maintain its current position of being opposed to physician-assisted suicide.
Some doctors had wanted the BMA to move to a neutral stance on the issue.
Last September, the latest parliamentary attempt to weaken the law, through a private members’ bill put forward by Labour MP Rob Marris, was defeated by 330 votes to 118.
But there were concerns after his bill was thrown out that pro-assisted suicide campaigners were already plotting their next move to try to force through legalisation, either through the courts or parliament.
A move to a neutral position by the BMA would have given euthanasia supporters a significant boost in their continuing quest to change the law.
Minutes before the debate, delegates had decided by a margin of only three votes to allow the meeting to debate the issue of whether the BMA “should adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying”.
Dr Andrew Mowat told delegates that BMA had debated the issue in seven of the last 10 ARMs.
He pointed out that MPs voted by nearly three to one against changing the law to legalise assisted suicide last year, while the Scottish parliament had thrown out a similar bill months earlier.
He said: “The public expect their doctors to lead on ethical issues. The thought of doctors killing patients creates public mistrust of us.”
He said that evidence from other countries showed that when doctors’ organisations moved to a position of neutrality it was soon followed by legalisation of assisted suicide.
Baroness Finlay, a crossbench peer and consultant in palliative medicine, and a leading opponent of legalisation, said: “With our hard-pressed healthcare system, doctors have enough to juggle without being saddled with assessing whose life is worth working hard to improve, and who should be given lethal drugs.”
But Professor Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a leading supporter of legalisation, said it was the BMA’s responsibility to debate the issue “year in, year out”.
The disabled people’s campaign network Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), which opposes assisted suicide, welcomed the BMA vote, tweeting: “Thankyou to @BMA for continuing to oppose #assistedsuicide & listening to disabled people. Our lives are worth living,” and, “Disabled people will sleep safer tonight knowing @BMA doctors support us.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, NDY UK’s founder, added on Twitter: “Great news! Not Dead UK thanks you from the bottom of our heart.”
Dr Ian Wilson, chair of the BMA’s representative body, said: “Doctors appreciate the strongly-held views both across society and their profession on both sides of this complex and sensitive issue.
“The issue of assisted dying has been regularly debated by the BMA at its annual policy-forming conference, with delegates voting this year to remain opposed to assisted dying.
“By engaging with doctors and members of the public in an 18-month long project, we have compiled a comprehensive body of qualitative research to look at the wider context of the issue and enable members to have informed discussions at this year’s conference.
“This work will still continue and we will also be holding a special open discussion this week during which doctors will be able to share their views on some of the more complex and practical issues doctors would face if assisted dying were permitted in the UK.”
Picture: Not Dead Yet UK supporters protesting about the Marris bill outside parliament