'Stop opposing assisted dying' - BMJ

A living will Image copyright Not Specified
Image caption Assisting a suicide is illegal throughout the UK

The British Medical Journal has called on doctors' organisations to stop opposing assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

In an editorial the BMJ said it wanted the British Medical Association and royal colleges to move their position from opposition to neutrality.

Fiona Godlee, BMJ editor-in-chief, argued that "legalisation is a decision for society not doctors" and drew parallels with abortion legalisation in the 1960s which was initially opposed by medical bodies.

She said: "A change in the law, with all the necessary safeguards, is an almost inevitable consequence of the societal move towards greater individual autonomy and patient choice. But it may take a while, and it may not happen until we properly value death as one of life's central events and learn to see bad deaths in the same damning light as botched abortions."

The BMJ said it backed calls from the campaign group Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD) which wanted medical bodies to be neutral on the issue.

Iona Heath, president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, wrote in the BMJ last month that the "apparently burgeoning enthusiasm" for assisted dying seemed surprising given recent history. This included "the involvement of doctors in state sponsored killings, personified by Josef Mengele, and the devastating private enterprise of Harold Shipman".

She said it would be impossible to draft a law robust enough to protect the sick and disabled, adding:"A malign government coming into power with legislation supporting assisted dying already in place is a deeply disturbing prospect. As individuals, very few of us act always in the interests of others and, because of this very basic truth, the legalisation of assisted dying, despite the very best of intentions, may render the most vulnerable even more so."

A BMA spokesperson said the organisation was "firmly opposed" to the legalisation of assisted dying adding: "If assisted dying was legalised, effective safeguards could not be implemented without the involvement of doctors. It is therefore appropriate for doctors to voice their views on this issue."

The BMA annual meeting later this month will debate several motions urging neutrality on the issue of assisted dying.

More on this story