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Doctors to be asked (again) for their views on assisted dying

Royal College of Physicians to seek feedback from its 35,000 members on whether the law should be changed

Caroline White

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is to poll its 35,000 members and fellows next month on whether the law on assisted dying should be changed.

Five-years ago, a similar survey found that most respondents didn’t support a change in the law. Asked whether, regardless of their support or opposition to change, they would personally be prepared to ‘participate actively’ in assisted dying were it to be legalised, nearly six out of 10 (58.4%) said no. These results echoed those of a 2006 RCP poll.

But there was no majority in 2014 on what the RCP’s position should be. Some 44.4% of respondents thought the College should be opposed, but nearly a third (31%) thought it should be neutral, while nearly a quarter (24.6%) said the RCP should back it.

Professor Andrew Goddard, RCP president, said: “The Royal College of Physicians is frequently asked for its stance on this high profile issue, which may be cited in legal cases and parliamentary debate, so it is essential that we base this on an up-to-date understanding of our members’ and fellows’ views.”

The RCP has confirmed that it will henceforth adopt a neutral position until two-thirds of respondents say that it should either back or oppose a change in the law.

The results of the poll, which will be conducted by email, will be published in March.

Dr Amy Proffitt, executive secretary of the Association for Palliative Medicine (APM), which opposes doctors’ involvement in assisted dying, has written a blog for the RCP, available on its website.

She writes: “The core issue in this survey is not whether assisting suicide is ever right or wrong, but whether this is a medical duty.

“The profession’s view is central to this political debate because it is about a doctor’s involvement. It is not possible to be neutral about an activity that a clinician is involved in administering.

“Neutrality implies that we have nothing to say one way or the other as to where our professional duties lie in the care of society’s potentially most vulnerable people.”

Professor Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, points out that there is widespread public support for assisted dying. He believes the RCP should have a neutral position on the issue and sets out his views on the RCP’s website.

“There is a small, but significant number of dying people who experience unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved by even the best palliative care, who want the choice of an assisted death,” he writes.

“A much larger group might not take this choice, but would have peace of mind if they knew the option was there if they needed it. We have a moral and clinical duty to respect the wishes of our patients. Therefore, the RCP should end its support for the prohibition on assisted dying,” he says.

But Steven Fouch, head of communications at the Christian Medical Fellowship commented: “The current laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia exist to protect the public, especially those who are sick, elderly, depressed or disabled from feeling obliged to end their lives.

“We hope that members and fellows of the Royal College of Physicians will vote strongly to reject this position and retain a principled stance in support of retaining safeguards for the most vulnerable of their patients.”

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