Delegates at the BMA's 2021 annual representative meeting (ARM) - taking place online - debated whether to adopt a neutral view on assisted dying, including physican-assisted dying.
The motion, which narrowly passed with 49% of votes in favour and 48% against, means the union’s previous policy of opposing assisted dying - in place since 2006 - will now change.
The shift follows a survey by the union in February 2020 which found that over 60% of doctors wanted to move away from a stance of opposition, while over a fifth felt the BMA should adopt a neutral position.
The House of Lords will debate prospective assisted dying legislation next month (22 October 2021) for the first time in six years, which is understood to be backed by a large proportion of the public. BMA leaders have stressed that, despite the change in position, it will not support or oppose a change in the law.
Doctors voting in favour of the motion said that the BMA risked losing credibility if it refused calls to move to a neutral stance. Dr Robin Arnold, who is part of the retired members forum and proposed the motion, said: ‘The survey is a public document, and the largest survey of doctors’ attitudes on this issue ever conducted.
‘If the BMA continues to say their members are opposed when everybody knows otherwise, it must lose credibility; the same would be true if we moved to support. Therefore, a position of neutrality is the most honest position, allowing the BMA to perform its function of representing all of the medical profession.
Dr Antony Lempert, who supported the motion, said a change in position would allow the BMA to ‘disentangle itself from the current self-imposed gagging order’. BMA policy from 2014 currently prevents the union from discussing the theme freely with the government.
He said: ‘Neutrality would enable the BMA to share the wide spectrum of members' opinions, expertise and their concerns. Parliamentary debate relies on representative, diverse, professional medical opinion, which we can't currently give.’
But not all doctors agreed that the BMA should change its stance on assisted dying. Dr Dom Whitehouse said: ‘Legalising assisted dying would remove at a stroke our ability as doctors to reassure our patients that we have their interests at heart.
‘If they know we're not opposed to their death being hastened, the contract will be irretrievably broken. Our role is to relieve suffering, always, and to cure if possible - you do not have to kill the patient to kill the pain.’
Responding to the vote, BMA medical ethics committee chair Dr John Chisholm, said: ‘This is an important day for the BMA and the medical profession, clearly demonstrating that we as an organisation are listening to our wider membership on such a crucial issue, and developing policy based on their valuable feedback.
‘Moving to a position of neutrality means that the BMA will not lobby for or against a change in the law, but far from remaining silent on the issue, we will continue to represent the views, interests and concerns expressed by our members.’
The Assisted Dying Bill, which will be debated next month, would enable terminally ill, mentally competent adults to request assistance to die in a manner, timing and place of their choosing, subject to approval by two independent doctors and a High Court judge.
A consultation is also due to begin on an Assisted Dying Bill in Scotland in the coming weeks and the States of Jersey is set to debate recommendations for law change by a citizen’s jury later this year.
Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying Dr Jacky Davis, said: ‘The BMA should be commended for listening to its members and for adopting a position which now represents the range of views on assisted dying among doctors fairly and accurately.
‘A neutral position promotes inclusion, respects diversity of thought and gives the BMA a seat at the table in this historic debate. It will enable our profession to contribute constructively to future legislation to help ensure it works for doctors, works for dying people and works for society as a whole.’