The British Medical Association (BMA) looks like it must end its policy of opposing assisted dying, according to Humanists UK, after 50% of members said they support changing the law to allow terminally ill and incurably suffering adults the option of a legal assisted death. The results come in a landmark members’ survey, where just 39% took the opposite view. 40% said the BMA itself should actively support such a change in the law, with just 33% opposed, and 21% neutral – meaning a clear majority want the BMA to change its current policy of opposition. Humanists UK has strongly welcomed the findings as possibly one of the most significant steps towards a change in the law.

Since 2006 the BMA, which represents more than 150,000 doctors and 19,000 medical students, has opposed assisted dying. However, in one of the UK’s largest surveys of medical opinion ever carried out on assisted dying, doctors have strongly indicated they want change. The survey also found that more than 10,000 doctors would be willing to actively participate if the law was changed. The BMA is now expected to review its stance on assisted dying at its next policy-making meeting in September 2021. In Humanists UK’s view, it seems that the policy of opposition must now end.

The momentous results come amid growing support for assisted dying internationally, as yesterday Ireland’s Parliament voted to move forward on proposals to legalise assisted dying, and a national referendum on assisted dying is scheduled in New Zealand later this month.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘We are delighted by the outcome of this survey, as it marks a potential turning point in the fight for terminally ill and incurably suffering people’s right to a legal, safe, and compassionate assisted death. Following this survey, the emphatic view of doctors to respect their patients’ rights to choose how, where, and when they want to die can no longer be in any doubt.

‘The option of an assisted death is now available for more than 150 million people around the world. Public opinion has reached a record high of nearly 90% supporting a change in the law, and the number of people forced to travel to Switzerland has increased by six-fold in the last two decades. We urge the BMA to take notice of the clear signal its members have sent today by casting the most votes in support of legal assisted dying, by dropping its hostile stance which no longer reflects the views of its members, representatives, or society at large.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

More about the BMA’s consultation

The BMA is a trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of 160,000 doctors in the UK. In 2019, at the BMA’s main policymaking meeting members voted for a motion to survey members on whether the association should adopt a neutral position on assisted dying.

The BMA’s consultation ran between 6-27 February and was organised by the independent organisation Kantar. 29,007 members of the BMA took part in the consultation (20% of all members invited to participate).

Members were asked whether they believe the BMA should actively support, actively oppose, or neither actively support nor actively oppose (i.e. take a neutral stance on) a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe drugs for eligible patients to self-administer to end their own life. ‘Four in ten (40%) surveyed members expressed the view that the British Medical Association (BMA) should actively support attempts to change the law, one in three (33%) favoured opposition, and one in five (21%) felt the BMA should adopt a neutral position, neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs.’ This means a majority opted for an end to the current policy of opposition, and a move to at least neutrality, on a position that would match the law in Switzerland. Further, ‘Half (50%) of surveyed members personally believed that there should be a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. Four in ten (39%) were opposed, with a further one in ten (11%) undecided.’

In terms of allowing doctors to administer the drugs, ‘Four in ten (40%) surveyed members expressed the view that the BMA should actively oppose attempts to change the law to permit doctors to administer life-ending drugs. Three in ten (30%) favoured support, and 23% felt the BMA should adopt a neutral stance of neither actively supporting nor actively opposing attempts to change the law.’ This again represents a majority opting for an end to the current policy of opposition, and a move to at least neutrality.

Read the BMA’s full results.

More about assisted dying

Under section 2(1) and 2(2A) of the 1961 Suicide Act, it is unlawful in England and Wales to encourage or assist someone to end their life. Anyone found guilty of an act ‘capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another’ can face up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Assisted dying is now permitted for terminally ill and incurably suffering people in Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. It is also permitted specifically for terminally ill people in Colombia, ten US jurisdictions, and the Australian state of Victoria and will soon become legal in Western Australia.

Read more about our campaign for legal assisted dying.

Read more about how nearly 90% of the public support support assisted dying reform.

Read more about research which found that more than one British citizen a week now ends their life in Switzerland.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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