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Most GPs don’t oppose assisted dying

Louise Prime

Thursday, 14 June 2012

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Leading medical bodies should stop opposing assisted dying, the BMJ has declared today. The BMJ supports the call for UK medical bodies to adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

The BMA will debate at its annual conference this month whether to move to a neutral position on assisted dying, and the BMJ’s editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee has called for the union as well as the Royal Colleges to cease their opposition. A new survey commissioned by Dignity in Dying has shown that 62% of 1000 GPs questioned, support a neutral position on assisted dying – and more than 80% of the public support legalisation.

The chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, Raymond Tallis, argues in this week’s BMJ that the BMA is wrong to oppose assisted dying on the grounds that it goes against the ethos of medicine because “the monstrous cruelty of walking away from a dying patient in unbearable suffering seems more obviously contrary to the ethos of medicine”.

Professor Tallis also writes that opposition runs against the tenet of ‘no decision about me without me’, and he points out that patient safety and trust in doctors have increased in those few regions in which a legal framework has been developed to allow assisted dying.

Fiona Godlee argues in her editorial that “legalisation is a decision for society not doctors” and draws parallels with the BMA’s and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ resistance to abortion law reform in the 1960s.

She writes: “A change in the law, with all the necessary safeguards, is an almost inevitable consequence of the societal move towards greater individual autonomy and patient choice. But it may take a while, and it may not happen until we value death as one of life’s central events and learn to see bad deaths in the same damning light as botched abortions.”

Oxford GP and author Dr Ann McPherson, who died a year ago from pancreatic cancer, was a lifelong supporter of changing the law on assisted dying. Her daughter, consultant dermatologist Tess McPherson, has written a personal view in today’s BMJ describing the indignity of Ann’s final three weeks before she died in agony, and concludes: “It is simple: the law needs to change to allow terminally ill but mentally competent people the right to a more dignified death than my mum was allowed.”

Fiona Godlee said that although the BMJ publicly supports the call for neutrality on the issue, the journal recently published personal views against legalisation and would continue to provide a platform for debate.

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