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UK doctor group shifts on assisted suicide from ‘opposed’ to ‘neutral’

Society for the Protection of Unborn Children

March 26, 2019 (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) — The Royal College of Physicians announced Thursday that its position on assisted suicide would move from one of opposition to neutrality.

Backing the least popular option in rigged poll

The move follows a highly controversial poll of the College's 36,000 members. Grave concerns about the role of assisted suicide campaigners in rigging the outcome of the vote have been raised. The poll found 43.4 per cent of respondents were opposed to a change in the law — not very different from a finding of 44.4 per cent when the poll was conducted in 2014. Thirty-one point six per cent supported the legalisation of assisted suicide, while just 25 per cent thought the RCP stance should be neutral — a fall from 31 per cent in the last poll.

However, because, in an unprecedented move, the College had decided in advance that the position would move to one of neutrality unless 60% of respondents upheld the historic position of opposition, this least popular position is now RCP policy.

The BBC notes that 80% of palliative medicine doctors — "a group who will spend more time than any other with patients at the end of life" — oppose changing the law. 

Delight of Dignity in Dying

Before the vote, Dr David Randall, a registrar in renal medicine at the Royal London Hospital, explained the situation, saying: "The membership seems to be being offered a fait accompli by members of Dignity in Dying, who have achieved positions of influence on the RCP council, and it has been designed (using a totally unjustified supermajority requirement) to ensure that the College drops its long-standing opposition to assisted suicide ahead of future parliamentary attempts at legislation."

Indeed, Dignity in Dying is now celebrating the news, with a gleeful email sent out to its mailing list saying that "Assisted dying laws in other countries have only ever been changed where medical bodies have taken a more balanced stance."

Vulnerable people put at risk

The RCP had faced a legal challenge over its decision, but this was rejected on Thursday by the High Court. Doctors David Randall, Dermot Kearney, Kathryn Myers and Adrian Treloar — all RCP members or fellows who brought the challenge — said they were disappointed but not surprised by the poll results, as the requirement for a supramajority to maintain the status quo made the outcome "almost inevitable".

They noted that the largest group of doctors still thinks the College should continue to oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide and that neutrality is the least well supported of the three potential positions the College could hold. The results therefore show that the views of RCP members and fellows are virtually unchanged since 2014 — making the College's new position at odds with the opinions expressed by the largest group of grassroots Members and Fellows.

"Sick and vulnerable people are at risk as a result of College neutrality on assisted suicide. The profession has not moved on this issue, so neither should the College," they conclude.

Published with permission from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

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