Royal College of Physicians adopts neutral position on assisted suicide despite widespread opposition among members

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The Royal College of Physicians has abandoned its historic opposition to assisted suicide despite over half of its members saying they would refuse to participate in the practice if it was made legal.

The RCP said it had been moved to change its position after a survey of its own members found that there was no majority view on assisted suicide.  

The poll triggered a backlash among doctors and academics who said it represented a "deliberate attempt" on the part of a minority in the RCP to drop opposition to assisted dying.  Opponents claiming that the 60 per cent threshold to maintain the status quo was evidence of vote rigging mounted a legal challenge but this was rejected by the High Court on Thursday. 

According to the findings of the poll, 43.4 per cent of respondents thought that the RCP should oppose any change in the law to legalise assisted dying, slightly down from the last survey in 2014 (44.4 per cent). 

Doctors who wanted the RCP to support a change in the law rose from 24.6 per cent to 31.6 per cent.  Only a quarter of the 6,885 respondents agreed that the RCP should adopt a neutral stance, down from 31 per cent in 2014.

The online survey, carried out between 5 February and 1 March, also found an increase in the number of doctors personally supporting a change in the law on assisted dying, from 32.3 per cent to 40.5 per cent, while those opposing the practice fell from 57.5 per cent to 49.1 per cent. 

Despite this, most doctors said they would not be prepared to participate in helping someone to die.  Only a quarter (24.6 per cent) said they would be prepared to participate in assisted dying if the law changed, a slight increase from 21.4 per cent in 2014.  The percentage saying they were not prepared to participate in assisted dying stood at over half (55.1 per cent), a small decrease from 58.4 per cent five years ago. 

RCP president Professor Andrew Goddard said that being neutral would allow the body to better reflect the diversity of opinions among members. 

"It is clear that there is a range of views on assisted dying in medicine, just as there is in society. We have been open from the start of this process that adopting a neutral position will mean that we can reflect the differing opinions among our membership," he said.

"Neutral means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law and we won't be focusing on assisted dying in our work. Instead, we will continue championing high-quality palliative care services."

However, Christian advocacy group CARE accused the RCP of "spinning" the results of the survey to support a neutral position. 

CARE's Communications Manager, James Mildred said: "It's all very well for the College to argue it is only trying to represent the views of members, but I'm afraid this is just sleight of hand.

"What makes the fact that this is nothing more than a sleight of hand embarrassingly explicit for the College, is that the result is pretty much the same as in 2014 and yet the outcome has been made to mean something completely different.

"Despite this spinning on the part of the leadership of the College, however, the truth is that the College is just as opposed to assisted suicide today as it was in 2015 when Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject it.

"Anyone can see through that and the College has done itself no favours by trying to re-spin an unchanged reality – that doctors continue to oppose assisted suicide – through the introduction of bizarre rules imposed without consulting its members.

"Neutrality will be interpreted by many as a green light for assisted suicide laws, however, it is up to Parliament to make that call.

"We continue to believe that there is no way assisted suicide legislation could be made safe from abuse or negligence."

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev James Newcome, welcomed Mr Goddard's assurances that the RCP would focus on high quality palliative care rather than assisted dying, which he said was "an emphasis that the Church of England shares and has always encouraged".

However, he said that the law should remain unchanged on assisted dying.

"We also recognise that fewer than one third of RCP members wanted the College to support a change in the current law prohibiting assisted suicide while fewer than a quarter said they would participate in assisted dying should the law change," he said.

"The Church of England's position remains to affirm the intrinsic value of every human life and express its support for the current law on assisted suicide as a means of contributing to a just and compassionate society in which vulnerable people are protected."