The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) announced last Friday [21 February] that it ‘will continue to oppose a change in the law on assisted dying, following a consultation of its members’. (Assisted dying is a blanket term that covers assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia.) CMF welcomed this announcement, as it confirms, to government and the public, that many doctors have serious concerns about the dangers of changing the law around this sensitive topic.
The law, as it stands represents a natural boundary. It provides protection for terminally ill and disabled people, shielding them from any pressure – real or perceived – to end their lives. This, in turn, provides a culture of care and compassion within the NHS and society as a whole, sending a strong message that life matters, that people matter and that we are committed to dealing with symptoms not discarding sufferers.
Campaigners for assisted suicide have been pushing the RCGP, as well as the RCP and the BMA, to adopt a ‘neutral’ position on a change in the law. We were delighted to see that only 11% of the respondents to this poll chose that option. In fact, the College made clear in the poll question that holding a definite position is more helpful than taking a position of neutrality – ‘being neutralised’ as the campaign group Our Duty of Care puts it. The poll question stated, ‘The College takes positions on significant ethical issues to ensure that it can influence the debate around government policy in the best interests of its members and our patients.’ 47% of respondents indicated that they wished the College to oppose a change in the law on assisted dying, while 40% supported a change, ‘providing there is a regulatory framework and appropriate safeguarding processes in place’.
The example of Canada, which changed its law and legislated for Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) in 2016, provides a salutary lesson on how secure these safeguards and frameworks are likely to be. Commenting on the RCGP announcement, our CEO, Mark Pickering, said, ‘Recent Canadian experience has shown how the medical culture can shift rapidly once laws change, leading to pressure on doctors who have conscientious objections. Canadian law is already pushing the boundaries; after only three years it is already removing initial references to terminal illness and demonstrating rapid incremental extension that should give great concern in the UK.’
Just this week it was revealed that a hospice in the Canadian province of British Columbia has had its funding removed because it refuses to offer MAiD as part of its end of life care.
We agree with the RCGP that, ‘The role of the College now is to ensure that patients receive the best possible palliative and end of life care’. This is the role of all doctors, nurses and other medical staff involved with patients at the end of life. Let us continue the excellent tradition of palliative care we have in this country and work to ensure this excellence is consistent across the board, so no one need fear pain, indignity or being a burden just when they are most vulnerable.
The next hurdle to cross is the BMA poll, which closed last night. The survey results will be released ahead of the Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) in June, and ‘will inform a debate and a vote by representatives on the BMA’s policy position’.
Please pray for that debate and vote – and if you are a member of the BMA, do plan to attend the ARM and let your voice and vote be counted.