Medics are being urged to drop their opposition to assisted dying before a landmark vote on the issue by Britain’s biggest doctors’ union.
As its members prepare to debate the issue at their annual representative meeting on Tuesday, the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents 150,000 doctors, is facing calls to adopt a neutral stance. It has opposed legalising assisted dying since 2006.
In an open letter shared with the Guardian more than 100 leading medics publicly urge the union to end its opposition.
“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,” the medics said in the letter, organised by the UK Assisted Dying Coalition.
“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 represent a broad coalition of medics, including members of the 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.”
That survey, the results of which were published in October 2020, found for the first time that those in support of a law change outnumbered those against. The findings could lead to the BMA changing its policy at its meeting in London on Tuesday.
Prominent signatories to the letter include Dr Graham Winyard, the former deputy chief medical officer, and Dr Henry Marsh, the retired neurosurgeon.
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.”
Under the 1961 Suicide Act it is a criminal offence to help someone end their life, with a prison sentence of 14 years. Marsh, who has advanced prostate cancer, wants a change to the law. He spoke earlier this year of his wish to have control over the circumstances of his own death.
“As the law stands, I am not allowed this comfort and the law insists instead that I must suffer,” he said. The surgeon, who has retired from the NHS and whose memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery became a bestseller, said that a lifetime operating on people with cancer meant that “the prospect of dying slowly from it myself fills me with dread”.
Marsh said it would be a “disgrace” if the BMA ignored the results of its 2020 survey. “Doctors must be allowed to speak up for changes in the law that would help their patients,” he said.
“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.”
The BMA survey heard from almost 29,000 doctors and medical students. It found that 50% personally believed doctors should be able to prescribe life-ending drugs for patients to take themselves. 39% opposed this, and 11% were undecided.
Asked whether the BMA should campaign for a change in the law, 40% said it should actively support a law change, 33% said it should stick with its present policy of opposing a law change, and 21% said the BMA should change to a neutral stance.
The doctors surveyed did not want to administer life-ending drugs, however. Asked whether they would support a law change allowing doctors to deliver the fatal doses, 46% opposed such a change, 37% supported it and 17% were undecided.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, 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.
“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 BMA debate comes as a private member’s bill to legalise assisted dying in England and Wales is due to have its second reading this autumn, after its launch in the House of Lords in May. A similar bill was launched in Scotland in June.