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British Doctors Consider Changing Positions on Assisted Suicide

British Doctors Consider Changing Positions on Assisted Suicide

As the UK prepares to hold a referendum that might end up changing the world, another, more insidious campaign is spreading throughout the nation: assisted suicide. 

The controversial practice is legal in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland but is punishable by up to 14 years in prison in the UK. British parliaments have resisted numerous assisted dying bills in recent years.  

Supporters of such bills argue that assisted dying is a fundament human right. To quote actor Sir Patrick Stewart, “We have no choice about how and when we come into this world, but it seems that we should be able to have a choice in how we leave it if our death is fast approaching.”

Opponents worry that such a bill would put pressure on the ill, elderly, and disabled to end their lives rather that watch family members suffer emotionally and financially. They fear that lives would end through mistakes and abuse instead of consent. To quote actress Liz Carr, “What terminally ill and disabled people need is an Assisted Living not an Assisted Dying bill.” 

California became the fifth US state to legalize assisted suicide (for terminally ill patients only) last October. The practice is also legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana. “The [California] Governor’s decision is certain to reverberate across the nation,” said a “Death with Dignity” spokesperson.  

The British Medical Association (BMA) is a professional trade union to which 170,000 British doctors belong. The group has been long been opposed to the legalization of assisted euthanasia and assisted suicide (except for a short stint beginning in 2005 when it turned neutral for 12 months).

The group met yesterday (June 21) to consider changing its stance on assisted suicide to “neutral.”

The Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians, and the British Geriatrics Society are officially opposed to the change. The Association for Palliative Medicine argues that “a bill allowing assisted suicide even for imminently dying people would have an adverse effect on the delivery of palliative care.”  

Neutrality on this issue is particularly dangerous, as it might lead to the successful passage of an assisted suicide law which could rend the medical profession in half – a drama that Britain does not need right now. 

The BMA knows from experience just how inconvenient neutrality can be. The Joffe Bill (pro-assisted suicide) was introduced following the BMA’s adoption of a “neutral” position in 2005. Because it had chosen the middle ground, the BMA was forced to remain silent during the debate. 

Going neutral would only serve to support the pro-dying camp, which currently enjoys the support of less than 1% of Britain’s 240,000 doctors. 

“Going neutral would be inappropriate, undemocratic and potentially highly dangerous,” writes Dr. and CEO Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship. “It would also be playing into the hands of a small unrepresentative pressure group and giving an advantage to only one side of the debate. Furthermore it would communicate confused messages to the public at a critical time and divide the profession at a time when a united doctors’ voice is needed more than ever.”

Tuesday’s vote was tighter than expected, with 63% (198-115) of BMA doctors voting to maintain the union’s current position on assisted suicide. 

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