BMA votes to maintain opposition to assisted suicide

The main doctors union in the UK has voted to continue its opposition to assisted suicide.

The British Medical Association (BMA) was under pressure by pro-euthanasia lobbyists to change its stance to neutral in a vote at its annual decision-making meeting in Belfast on Tuesday. But the body voted by 198 to 115 to maintain its current opposition.

MPs voted to reject assisted suicide by 330 votes to 118 last September.Reuters

The rejected motion called on the BMA to "adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying". A previous motion which said the BMA should not even debate the question of assisted suicide was split 50/50.

The pressure to change came after a YouGov survey found just seven per cent of the public supported the union's current position. "Please think about what your patients would want today," said one BMA member in the debate.

But another GP, Dr Mark Pickering, said it was important to listen to patients but also to consider unintended consequences.

A recent consultation by the BMA found doctors raised concerns about helping people to die when their primary role was to save lives. Dr Ian Wilson, a spokesman for the BMA, said doctors appreciated the strongly-held views on both sides of the debate.

"By engaging with doctors and members of the public in an eighteen-month long project, we have compiled a comprehensive body of qualitative research to look at the wider context of the issue and enable members to have informed discussions at this year's conference," he said.

"This work will still continue and we will also be holding a special open discussion this week during which doctors will be able to share their views on some of the more complex and practical issues doctors would face if assisted dying were permitted in the UK."

The pro-assisted suicide campaign group Dignity in Dying admitted the "concept of neutrality has precedent" for legalising assisted dying. The medical associations in California and Canada have neutral stances and both states have recently approved assisted suicide legislation.

Christian charity CARE, which has campaigned against the UK changing the law of assisted suicide, agreed the BMA's influence would have been diminished if it had adopted a neutral position.

Chief executive Nola Leach said she was "delighted" by the vote.

"This was a cynical effort to try and silence a respected opponent of assisted suicide and it is clear a move towards neutrality would have been a stepping stone towards full support for assisted suicide," she said.

"Adopting a neutral position on this ethically charged issue would have been highly dangerous and it would also have represented a colossal failure of leadership.

"It makes no sense for doctors' largest representative body to not hold an official view on such a crucial issue."

The vote came days after Canada became one of the few countries to legalise assisted suicide. Government officials said the law was just the first step and could be expanded in the future.