Leading medics support assisted dying

Lord Falconer has failed in previous attempts to change the law on assisted suicide in Parliament, but his bill is set to be read in Parliament later this month.PA

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published an editorial insisting that terminally ill patients should be granted the right to end their lives.

"People should be able to exercise choice over their lives, which should include how and when they die, when death is imminent," the paper argues, expressing support for Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill which is due to be voted on by Peers this month.

In a piece that signifies the BMJ "breaking ranks with the medical establishment", as noted by The Telegraph, the editorial highlights the results of the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey. A national poll found that 82 per cent of people "are in favour of a change in law on assisted dying", despite reservations from medical professionals and faith groups that such measures would weaken sanctions that safeguard vulnerable people.

"In recent decades, respect for autonomy has emerged as the cardinal principle in medical ethics and underpins developments in informed consent, patient confidentiality, and advance directives," the editorial notes.

"Recognition of an individual's right to determine his or her best interests lies at the heart of efforts to advance patient partnership. It would be perverse to suspend our advocacy at the moment a person's days were numbered."

The comment piece, published yesterday, does highlight the concerns that some medical professionals have regarding assisted suicide, however – namely the inability to predict exactly how long an individual would have to live naturally (Lord Falconer's Bill would apply only to adults who are expected to live six months or less) and protections for doctors who don't wish to actively support euthanasia within their role.

However, the BMJ contends that "the bill makes robust allowance for conscientious objection – a provision that has worked well for the almost 50 years of the Abortion Act," and also accuses professional medical bodies of "going through extraordinary contortions to avoid asking individual members for their opinions".

"Ultimately, however, this is a matter for parliament, not doctors, to decide," it points out. "Let us hope that our timid lawmakers will rise to the challenge."

The British Medical Association, which owns the BMJ, however, has underlined its rejection of legalised euthanasia.

Chair of the BMA Council, Dr Mark Porter, has said the association "remains firmly opposed to legalising assisted dying".

"This issue has been regularly debated at the BMA's policy forming annual conference and recent calls for a change in the law have persistently been rejected," he added.

"The BMJ is a wholly owned subsidiary of the BMA, and quite rightly has editorial independence. Its position on assisted dying is an editorial decision and does not reflect the views of the BMA or the medical profession.

"Our focus must be on making sure every patient can access the very best of palliative care, which empowers patients to make decisions over their care."

Last week, Andrea Williams of Christian Concern insisted that vulnerable people will be "at risk" if laws on assisted dying are relaxed, no matter how many protections are put in place by legislation.

"The murder law is there to set the highest priority on the importance and value of life and to protect it," she said.

"Parliament needs to continue to resist the repeated attempts by a small and determined lobby group to legalise assisted suicide."