BMA outlines its neutral stance on assisted dying
The British Medical Association - the trade union for doctors in the UK - have changed their stance on assisted dying from opposition, to one of neutrality. I’ve been speaking to Dr Andrew Green from the BMA’s ethics committee...
Andrew - Back in 2020, we had one of the biggest surveys ever of medical opinion which had almost 30,000 responses, looking at doctors' attitude to physician assisted dying. Now, in a nutshell, what our survey showed is that approximately 50% of doctors felt that there should be a change in the law to make this legal with the other 50% either being opposed or being unsure.
James - Those numbers, such a divide. I suppose that's speaking to the conflict doctors expressing a view on this subject have to weigh up between their commitment on the one hand to do no harm and their instinct to alleviate a patient's suffering.
Andrew - That's correct. And of course, faced with the diversity of opinion within the organisation, it made our traditional position of opposition really one that was difficult to hang on to, and that's why we changed towards one of neutrality. Neutrality is an interesting concept. It doesn't mean in any way that we are disinterested. It doesn't limit our ability to speak out. All it means is that we believe that it's such a fundamental subject that the decision as to whether it should be legalised or not is one for the population as a whole. If society goes down this route, then we have very clear ideas about what would be required to make the system work for doctors and, as importantly, work well for patients. But it's not our decision to make.
James - One of the issues you're going to have to grapple with were the law to change is how would this be implemented in the UK? Would this be a service that the NHS offered?
Andrew - Whether it's an NHS service, we've not actually looked into or have not formulated a specific opinion on. What we do feel very strongly about is that any service should be based on an opt-in model of delivery and not an opt out. In other words, participation in physician-assisted dying wouldn't be something that would just be expected of you as a doctor, it would be provided by doctors who'd taken an active interest in it and have actively opted in to provide the service. Now, that has huge advantages for doctors because it takes the pressure off any doctors who feel that they couldn't participate, but also it would be really good for any patients who do want to access the service because they would be sure that they were engaging with doctors who were interested, who were properly trained, who were working within a proper service that would be resourced and accountable. All of these things would provide protection not only to doctors, but also to patients.