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Royal College of Physicians adopts neutral position on assisted dying

29 March 2019

Fellows and members were surveyed on views

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THE Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has adopted a neutral position on assisted dying, after a survey of its Fellows and members.

Since the survey was conducted in 2014, the percentage who thought that the College should be opposed to a change in the law fell by one per cent (44.4 per cent to 43.4 per cent). The percentage who wanted the College to support a change increased from 24.6 per cent to 31.6 per cent. One quarter backed neutrality.

The Council — the main decision-making body — had earlier ruled that a special-majority of 60 per cent would be required for a position either supporting or opposing a change in the law (Comment, 8 February). Among the members of the Council is Professor Raymond Tallis, Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine, University of Manchester, and a former chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying.

The survey also asked whether respondents personally supported a change in the law. The percentage that did had increased from 32.3 per cent to 40.5 per cent. Those opposing it fell from 57.5 per cent to 49.1 per cent. Those who said that they would be prepared to participate in assisted dying increased from 21.4 per cent to 24.6 per cent, while those who would not fell from from 58.4 per cent to 55.1 per cent.

The President of the RCP, Professor Andrew Goddard, said: “Neutral means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law, and we won’t be focusing on assisted dying in our work. Instead, we will continue championing high-quality palliative-care services.”

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, welcomed these “assurances”. He said: “We also recognise that fewer than one third of RCP members wanted the College to support a change in the current law prohibiting assisted suicide, while fewer than a quarter said they would participate in assisted dying should the law change.

“The Church of England’s position remains to affirm the intrinsic value of every human life, and express its support for the current law on assisted suicide as a means of contributing to a just and compassionate society in which vulnerable people are protected.”

This week, the Revd Professor Peter Selby, a consultant endocrinologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary, said that he was “very saddened by the decision”. The college had “effectively disenfranchised itself from having any part in ongoing debates: something that is really important for the practice of medicine, for the way its members practice. . . What we are not doing with this is protecting the vulnerable: that is what really upsets me about this.”

It was possible that a “snowball effect” would not take hold, with other bodies following suit, he said. Currently, the Royal College of General Practitioners opposes a change in the law. In 2006, the British Medical Association reversed to a position of opposition within a year of adopting a neutral stance.

The CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, Dr Mark Pickering, said this week: “The RCP’s bizarre approach to this poll has meekly followed the agenda of those who wish to change the law. The Council’s twin decisions — to impose neutrality before the survey was carried out, and to require a supermajority to change this position — are undemocratic and without precedent. . .

“Imposing neutrality in defiance of the most prevalent opinion shows how a small and unrepresentative group within the RCP Council, who support a change in the law, have exerted undue influence upon the College. We hope that RCP members will make their voice heard to their Council on this abuse of process.”

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