Christian groups welcome GP body's decision to continue opposing assisted dying

(Photo: Unsplash/Luis Melendez)

The decision of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to continue its opposition to assisted dying has been welcomed by Christian groups. 

The RCGP's governing council ratified the decision on Friday after surveying 6,674 members across the UK. 

Asked whether the RCGP should change its current position of opposing a change in the law on assisted dying, nearly half (47%) said they were opposed to this.

Around one in 10 (11%) said they wanted the RCGP to adopt a neutral position on the issue, while 40% said that the organisation should support a change in the law on assisted dying if there is a regulatory framework and appropriate safeguarding processes in place. Two per cent of respondents abstained from answering. 

Assisted dying is illegal across the UK but some campaigners have been calling for a change to the law. Within the RCGP, there had been some calls for the organisation to go neutral. 

The RCGP last consulted its members on the issue in 2014 and said it would not review its position for at least five years "unless there are significant developments on the issue". 

Professor Martin Marshall, RCGP chair, said the organisation's focus for now was on palliative and end of life care.

"As the UK's largest medical Royal College it is important that we engage in debate and listen to what our members have to say on wide-ranging issues affecting GPs and their patients," he said. 

"Assisted dying is a controversial topic and this was reflected in the responses to our consultation. However, the highest proportion of respondents said that the College should continue to oppose a change in the law on assisted dying.

"This was the largest consultation on an issue of public policy that the College has conducted both in terms of response rate and volume of respondents. The survey results have been helpful in guiding College Council as to what our position should be.

"The role of the College now is to ensure that patients receive the best possible palliative and end of life care, and to this end we are working with Marie Curie and others to support this." 

The decision was welcomed by Dr Mark Pickering, CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, who said that legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia would "fundamentally alter the doctor-patient relationship". 

"Those campaigning for a change in the law have pushed hard for the RCGP to go neutral, so they could have presented this to Parliament and the public as 'doctors dropping their opposition'," he said.

"Despite variations of views amongst GPs, the clear main view is that of opposition to law change. Many doctors recognise the dangers of changing laws designed to protect terminally ill and disabled people from feeling pressure, real or perceived, to end their lives."

He added: "The current laws protecting vulnerable people represent a natural boundary and do not need changing. Instead we need to refocus our attention on providing the very best palliative care to all who need it, and ending the current postcode lottery on palliative care."

James Mildred, spokesman for CARE (Christian Action Research Education) said the RCGP's decision was "very welcome".

"No other major professional medical body supports changing the law to introduce assisted suicide of any kind," he said.

"The RCGP has today recognised the danger of either supporting or being neutral on assisted suicide.

"Vulnerable people need the protection of the current law and to know that medical professionals truly have their best interests at heart.

"Today's decision will no doubt be noted by MPs and other elected representatives as a significant rebuff to those advocating for a dangerous change in the law."

Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing, an alliance of organisations opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, said that without the protection offered by the current laws, the sick, elderly, depressed and disabled may feel "obliged" to end their lives.

The law at present, he said, "protects those who have no voice against exploitation and coercion."

"We are pleased that the Royal College of General Practitioners recognise this and the dog whistle message that singling out the terminally ill and disabled people would send," he said.

Dr Macdonald continued: "Just look at what is happening in Canada, which introduced assisted suicide and euthanasia in 2016. Since then around 13,000 people have been killed. Then in September, the Quebec Superior Court struck down the requirement that a person be terminally ill before they qualify for euthanasia in Canada, allowing those with chronic conditions and mental health problems to have their lives ended."

He added: "The current laws that prevent assisted suicide and euthanasia do not need changing."