Over 1,000 doctors voice concern over assisted dying poll

(Photo: Unsplash/Eduard Militaru)

Over 1,000 doctors have come out in opposition to a planned poll by the Royal College of Physicians that may lead to the organisation adopting a position of neutrality on assisted dying.  

The Express reports that 1,422 medics have signed the open letter organised by Dr David Randall and sent to RCP president Professor Andrew Goddard. 

The letter said it 'seems perfectly clear' that the survey 'has been designed to ensure the college drops its long-standing opposition to assisted suicide and move instead to a position of so-called "neutrality"'.

'Indeed, at a recent council meeting, a new default position of neutral was adopted prior to the announcement of the new poll, without any involvement of the wider membership,' the letter claimed.

'We acknowledge members may hold different views on this sensitive issue. But by going neutral, the college is sending a clear signal of support for a law change. Given the most recent poll of members showed a majority were opposed to assisted suicide, the approach the college is taking is extraordinary.' 

At present, the RCP opposes assisted suicide, but last month it announced that it would be polling its 35,000 members to decide whether there should be a change in the law to permit assisted dying. 

Controversially, the RCP said it would adopt a 'neutral position' unless a clear majority of 60 per cent voted for or against changes to the law. 

This was in spite of previous polls confirming more RCP members were opposed to assisted dying than in favour. 

In a 2014 poll, 58.4 per cent said they would not personally be prepared to 'participate actively' in assisted dying if it were legalised. 

Asked what the RCP's position should be, 44.4 per cent of respondents thought the RCP should be opposed to assisted dying, while only 31 per cent thought it should be neutral or have no stance.   Only a quarter (24.6 per cent) said the RCP should be in favour.  The RCP said a poll in 2006 yielded similar results. 

Despite the strength of opposition, there appears to be no plans to call off the poll, the results of which are due to be announced in March.

RCP president Andrew Goddard told the Times: 'Because doctors are divided, the RCP wants to ensure that we only hold a position one way or another if there is a clear majority . . . The RCP has not campaigned on this issue and has no plans to do so.'

In a separate letter to the Times, doctors and academics said the terms of the poll amounted to 'tacit support for assisted suicide'.

'We are worried that this move represents a deliberate attempt by a minority on [the college's governing council] to drop the college's opposition to assisted suicide even if the majority of the membership vote to maintain it,' they said, as they called for a 'more orthodox, justifiable and democratic approach'.

The Christian Medical Fellowship has questioned the intentions behind the poll.  Writing on the CMF blog, head of public policy Philippa Taylor said neutrality was a 'murky concept' that implies 'we are no longer opposed'. 

'Why, despite the RCP polling all its members just a few years ago with the same question, has it decided it needs to poll members again? Could it possibly be part of a deliberate attempt to go officially 'neutral' on 'assisted dying' and from there, to support it?' she said. 

Dr Dermot Kearney, president of the Catholic Medical Association and an RCP fellow, told the Catholic Universe that the poll was a 'very strange way to conduct democracy'. 

'It certainly is not the way that democracy is conducted in most of the Western world,' he said. 'It is gerrymandering, rigging. It will come out as a sham result and it is one that is highly predictable before the poll begins.' 

The debate over assisted dying has been reignited after Geoffrey Whaley, 80, who suffered from motor-neurone disease, took his own life in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland last week.  In a letter to MPs published posthumously, he called for a change in the law to allow assisted dying. 

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable responded to the call by saying he favoured the legalisation of assisted dying.