BMA drops opposition to assisted dying

The UK’s largest professional body of doctors has voted to end its 15-year opposition to the legalisation of assisted dying. Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision have welcomed the decision as a seismic victory in the campaign for assisted dying.

By a margin of 49% to 48%, members of the British Medical Association (BMA) voted to approve a motion stating ‘That this meeting believes, in order to represent the diversity of opinion demonstrated in the survey of its membership, the British Medical Association should move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying including physician assisted dying’ at its annual policy-making conference. This means that the BMA will now have a neutral stance on assisted dying, mirroring the positions of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing, and Royal Society of Medicine.

The vote happened after Dr Wendy Savage, a patron of Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision secured a members’ survey last year. It found that half of all doctors personally support legalising a right to die. What’s more, 59% of doctors think adults with physical conditions causing intolerable suffering should be allowed help to die. Whereas only 24% of doctors think a right to die should be restricted to those with six months left to live.

This morning 103 doctors, including the leading brain surgeon Dr Henry Marsh and former Deputy Chief Medical Officer for NHS England Dr Graham Winyard, urged the BMA to end its opposition to assisted dying in a joint letter published in the Guardian.

The news comes ahead of a parliamentary debate of Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill next month. If passed, this law would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients with less than six months to live and who have a clear and settled wish to die, subject to safeguards.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘It is a seismic development that the UK’s largest medical organisation has dropped its opposition to assisted dying. For decades, the perceived hostility of doctors has been a major roadblock to reform in Parliament. The ability to choose how, where, and when to die is a vital freedom, because it relates to an individual’s fundamental right to autonomy. With the possibility of legislation now on the horizon, today’s decision will be seen by patients and families as a validation of their wishes. We hope it will also be seen by parliamentarians as a green light for changing the law, as supported by the overwhelming majority of the public.’

My Death, My Decision’s Chair Trevor Moore said: 

‘Today’s decision represents a historic milestone in the campaign to legalise assisted dying that will help to pave the way towards a future change in the law. In the fifteen years that the BMA has opposed assisted dying, the number of Brits travelling abroad to end their lives has increased six-fold, to at least one per week. Public support has soared in support of reform, with up to nine in ten people favouring assisted dying for terminally ill adults or those suffering with incurable conditions. What’s more, progressive countries, such as Canada, have demonstrated that changes in the law can be both compassionate and safe.

‘By adopting a neutral stance on assisted dying the BMA is now better placed to accurately represent the views of its members, and contribute their expertise to the debate. But, more importantly, they have also sent a clear signal that policymakers must not remain blind to the suffering caused by the current law any longer. We congratulate the BMA for its decision and now urge parliamentarians to move to change the law on assisted dying.’