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Over a 100 doctors call for the BMA to end its opposition to assisted dying

Photo: Mykola Vasylechko

103 doctors, including several members of the British Medical Association, have signed an open letter urging the BMA to end its opposition to assisted dying. The UK Assisted Dying Coalition, which includes Humanists UK, has organised the letter. It comes ahead of the BMA’s annual policy-making conference, where doctors will debate on 14 September the Trade Union’s stance on law reform.

According to the BMA members’ survey, only a third of UK doctors (33%) want the BMA to remain opposed to assisted dying. 40% want the BMA to support a change in the law, and 21% think the BMA should neither support nor oppose new legislation. This means that 61%, a large majority, are in favour of the BMA ending its hostility to assisted dying.

The same survey found that half of all doctors personally support changing the law. And a majority (59%) believe assisted dying should be available for either the terminally ill or incurably suffering.

Prominent signatories to the letter include Dr Graham Winyard, the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer of NHS England; Dr Henry Marsh, one of the UK’s top brain surgeons who – following a cancer diagnosis – recently called for a parliamentary inquiry into assisted dying, backed by 56 MPs and peers.

Later this year, Parliament is due to debate assisted dying for the first time in over half a decade. It will consider Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill at its second reading. In Scotland, Liam McArthur MSP has also announced his intention to bring forward a private members’ bill. Both laws would allow assisted dying for adults of sound mind who have a terminal diagnosis.

Speaking about his support for the open letter Dr Henry Marsh said:

‘Having gone to the effort of surveying its members and producing one of the largest surveys of medical opinion ever, it would be a disgrace if the BMA now disregarded their wishes by maintaining its opposition to assisted dying. Doctors must be allowed to speak up for changes in the law that would help their patients. And importantly, ensure that lawmakers do not exclude those with incurable conditions from future legislation. Over the course of my career, I was pleased to witness a shift away from paternalism within modern healthcare. Although a vocal minority may not like it, doctors should not be the arbiters of who gets the freedom to choose whether to live or die. That choice belongs to each individual. The BMA’s policy shouldn’t pretend otherwise.’

Dr Graham Winyard said: 

‘In every other aspect of medical practice, doctors accept that the wishes of their patients must be respected. This vote gives the BMA the opportunity to finally respect the clear wish of the public, its patients, and stop its opposition to assisted dying.’

Humanist UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘Doctors sent a clear message last year when a majority voted to end the BMA’s opposition to assisted dying. With people now living for longer but in poorer health and pain, it’s clear that attitudes have shifted. Bolstered by evidence from abroad that the choice of a peaceful death can be combined alongside robust safeguards, half of all doctors now personally favour changing the law for those suffering from either terminal or incurable illnesses. We hope the BMA will listen to the clear view of its members and drop its outdated hostility to assisted dying which is lacking in compassion, dignity, and respect.’

The full letter and signatories are below.

We represent a broad coalition of medics, including members of the British Medical Association (BMA), and call upon the BMA to respect the outcome of its independent members’ survey on assisted dying, and to adopt a neutral stance on law reform.

In an era when modern medicine can extend the length of an individual’s life, but not necessarily its quality, we believe that those with terminal or incurable conditions deserve a choice about how, where, and when they die.

As medical professionals, we believe that it is our first responsibility to preserve life. But that does not mean we should prolong it at any cost. We advocate for the provision of high-quality palliative care. Yet we recognise, as both the European Association of Palliative Care and Palliative Care Australia have concluded, that strong palliative medicine and the choice of an assisted death are not mutually exclusive.

Of course, individual doctors who oppose legal changes should have a right to have their voices heard. But their convictions should not silence the majority of us (61% according to the BMA’s survey) who support a change in the BMA’s policy.

With the possibility of legislation now in sight, neutrality will allow us to contribute our expertise and better inform the public’s debate. But importantly, with the momentum behind this cause continuing to grow, it will also show our patients that we are listening to their concerns and that we respect their choices.

As medics, we pledged to respect our patients’ autonomy. Now is the moment to put such a principle into action.

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about the UK Assisted Dying Coalition and its work: www.assisteddying.org.uk

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign to legalise assisted dying: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/assisted-dying/

Read more about the BMA members’ survey on assisted dying: https://www.bma.org.uk/media/3367/bma-physician-assisted-dying-survey-report-oct-2020.pdf

Full list of signatories:

Dr Henry Marsh

Dr Graham Winyard

Dr Michael Irwin

Sir Iain Chalmers

Dr Martin Scurr

Dr Rhiannon Lewis

Dr Matthew Cripps

Dr Paul Kitchener

Dr Simon Kenwright

Dr John Porter

Dr James Powell

Dr Tess Harris

Dr Hugh Newman

Dr Adam Bakker

Dr Nicholas Barnes

Dr Dilys Gannon-Ball

Dr Margaret Branthwaite

Dr Pam Wortley

Dr Elizabeth Devonald

Dr Angela Munden

Dr Josep Arnau

Dr Jennifer Burkett

Dr Susan Dilly

Dr Peter Hetherington

Dr Denise Bound

Dr Clive Studd

Dr Samantha Smith

Dr Miriam Day

Dr David Penwarden

Dr Josh Taylor

Dr Kenneth Wolfe

Dr Antony Lempert

Dr Noreen Mary Soar

Dr Edith Susan Mowbray

Dr Alexander Hunter Adam

Dr Christopher John Toynton

Dr Roger Allsopp

Dr Bruce Mackay

Dr Thomas Rousell Lee

Dr Sujata Rao

Dr Francis Degnen

Dr Ian S R Parson

Dr Sam Kirkwood

Dr Robert Humphreys

Dr Clive Barker

Dr Alan Cooper

Dr Rosemarie Jones

Dr Hubert Curran

Dr Francis Ronald John Hinde

Dr Anita Rita Kalns-Timans

Dr Noel Scott

Dr John Nicholas

Dr Thomas Young

Dr Daniel Charles Lane

Dr Rajin Chowdhury

Dr Ali Meads

Dr Robin Barber

Dr Richard Morey

Dr Trevor John Laundy

Dr Suparna Sukumaran

Dr Gayle McDonald

Dr Chris Clough

Dr Alison Murray

Dr J H Newman

Dr Julian Davis

Dr Caroline Jessel

Dr Roger M Peberdy

Dr Richard I Harris

Dr John Beverley Webb

Dr Juan Corlett Mason

Dr Anthony F M Brierley

Dr Christopher Healey

Dr Jane Lofts

Dr Laurence Smaje

Dr Debbie Shipley

Dr Gillian MacDougall

Dr Judy Greenwood

Dr Omar Hilmi

Dr Peter Sandercock

Dr Allison Thomas

Dr Michael Sudlow

Dr Mark Worsley

Dr Malcolm Macleod

Dr Ewen Stewart

Professor Richard Knight

Dr Shiona Mackie

Dr Katharine Morrison

Dr Jack Macfie

Dr Stephen McCabe

Dr Karen Rookwood

Dr Gordon Drummond

Dr Douglas Keay

Dr Phil Hammond

Dr Rosemary Leonard

Dr Jane Reid

Dr Pauline Kaczmarek

Dr Ann Mallon

Dr Debs Brown

Dr Wendy Dove

Dr Steve Guest

Dr Titilayomi Khadijah Bunmi Shonubi

Dr Derek Cooper

Dr Ilanka Elizabeth Cunningham

About the BMA

The British Medical Association has been opposed to assisted dying since 2006. In 2005, it was briefly neutral on the topic. On 14 September, it is expected to vote on whether to change its stance on assisted dying at its annual policy making conference (the Annual Representative Meeting).

In October 2020, the British Medical Association announced the outcome of its members’ survey on assisted dying. The BMA heard from almost 29,000 doctors and medical students and found 40% said the BMA should actively support a change in the law; 21% favoured neutrality; 33% wanted to remain opposed. This totals 61% calling for the BMA to change its current hostile position on assisted dying.

The results also found that 50% personally believe that doctors should be able to prescribe life-ending drugs for patients to take themselves. Moreover, when asked who should be eligible for an assisted death if the law were to change, 59% felt that patients with physical conditions causing intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved should be; whereas only 24% thought patients suffering from a condition likely to cause death in six months or less should be the only people eligible.

About the Assisted Dying Coalition 

The Assisted Dying Coalition is the UK and Crown dependencies coalition of organisations working in favour of the legal recognition of the right to die, for individuals who have a clear and settled wish to end their life and who are terminally ill or facing incurable suffering.

It is made up of End of Life Choices Jersey, Friends at the End, Humanist Society Scotland, Humanists UK, and My Death, My Decision.

About Humanists UK 

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

In 2021, Humanists UK is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a renewed focus on its history. The new website Humanist Heritage is a rich new web resource that uncovers the untold story of humanism in the UK – a story of people, groups, objects, places, movements, publications, and ideas.

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