UK Doctors Split on Assisted Suicide

News: World News
by David Nussman  •  •  February 1, 2019   

Royal College of Physicians asks members to vote on changing official stance

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LONDON ( - Some doctors in the United Kingdom are pushing back against efforts to gain support for legalizing assisted suicide.

An article on Friday in The Times highlights how some members of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) fear that the organization is being hijacked by assisted suicide activists.

The RCP is asking its members if they think British law should be altered in order to allow assisted suicide. If a majority of 60 percent or more votes one way or another, the college will issue an official stance accordingly. But if there is no clear winner, the RCP will adopt a neutral stance on the issue.

"The poll will be conducted by email," a statement on the RCP website explains, "and the results will be released in March."

Some physicians are casting doubt on the way the poll is set up, claiming that even a neutral stance on assisted suicide would still be a tacit endorsement. In a letter to The Times, about two dozen medical professionals stated, "We are worried that this move represents a deliberate attempt by a minority ... to drop the college's opposition to assisted suicide even if the majority of the membership vote to maintain it."

According to the rules surrounding the vote, if as many as 59 percent of members oppose assisted suicide, the college would still change its official stance to make it neutral.

In a similar poll from 2014, 58.4 percent of RCP members said they were opposed to assisted suicide, but only 44.4 percent said the RCP should be officially opposed to it. Due to the result of that 2014 vote, the college reaffirmed its position against assisted suicide.

But when compared with a 2006 poll, the 2014 results showed that support for assisted suicide has grown slowly among U.K. doctors.

The Times noted that most medical organizations are officially opposed to physician-assisted suicide.

The RCP website features several pieces by U.K. doctors presenting their arguments on the issue of assisted suicide. In one of the pieces, Dr. Amy Proffitt argues that even being neutral would send the wrong message to the public. She cautions, "In moving from opposition to neutrality, the RCP signals a significant shift. This will be misinterpreted by society, the media and Parliament to mean that physicians as a whole support legal change."

Proffitt also argued, "This is not about being out of step with public opinion. Our responsibility here is our duties as doctors to avoid harm, to maintain the trust of all our patients when rendered vulnerable by their illnesses and to protect our relationship with them."

RCP President Andrew Goddard has stressed the importance of the poll, saying, "The Royal College of Physicians is frequently asked for its stance on this high profile issue, which may be cited in legal cases and parliamentary debate, so it is essential that we base this on an up-to-date understanding of our members' and fellows' views."

Assisted suicide is when a doctor helps a patient obtain the means of suicide, but the patient self-administers. Euthanasia is when the doctor administers the deadly pill or injection at the patient's request.

Currently, both physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal in the United Kingdom. Although in Scotland, some assisted suicide activists argue the law is unclear.

In England, assisting someone in trying to take their own life is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Euthanasia is considered manslaughter and has a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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