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British Medical Association to poll members on assisted suicide

by Cara Bentley

Delegates at the annual meeting of the doctors' trade union in Belfast voted in favour of carrying out a poll on whether it should adopt a neutral position regarding a change in the law.

While the results of the survey - which would be open to the BMA's 155,000 members - will not be binding, they could inform policy-making in the future.

Many Christians raised concerns when the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) did the same thing earlier this year, adopting a neutral stance unless 60 per cent of the electorate voted one way or the other.

In March they adopted a neutral position after 25 per cent voted for a neutral position, 32 per cent voted to support a change in the law and 43 per cent said they believe the RCP should remain opposed.

Speaking about whether the same super majority requirement would exist for the BMA vote, Alistair Thompson, a Christian from the group Care Not Killing, said: "We hope not, because that was a very, very controversial poll and has led to both a legal challenge to the validity of it and also has seen a number of very high profile resignations from senior positions within that organisation.

"It is actually right and proper that groups like the BMA, which have a very important public policy function - consult members on important issues but it needs to be done in a fair and unbiased way.

"So, that means putting forward a set of questions and I think going with the majority view, which we're confident from looking at the RCP poll, that almost half of doctors wanted to maintain very strong opposition and when you look at those people who wanted a neutral position it was just one in four."

Under UK law, it is currently illegal to encourage or assist suicide and doctors found guilty of helping someone to die can be jailed for up to 14 years.

If doctors were to vote for a change in position it would not change the law but Mr Thompson explained: "It will be used by those campaigning for a change in the law to say that somehow doctors have gone soft on the issue, which is not the case.

"When you look at the doctors who deal with people at their end of life, such as palliative care doctors and indeed trauma doctors, you're getting 80 plus per cent of people saying we don't need a change in the law and we hope that that's a very strong message that will be reflected to the members of the British Medical Association."

When asked why this was a 'Christian' issue, he replied: "Because I think there are fundamental teachings about the the value of life and what we see in places like Oregon and Washington state - which are often used as the model for systems of physician-lead assisted suicide - we see a majority of people who choose to end their lives, doing so not because of the symptoms of their condition but because they fear becoming a burden on their loved ones and on their finances.

"As Christians, we should be really resisting any move that that may put pressure on vulnerable people to end their life."

A BMA spokesman said: "The BMA represents doctors and medical students from across the UK, who, like the wider population, hold a range of views on many issues, including assisted dying.

"While today's motion instructs the BMA to poll its members on the issue - which we will now explore a way to take forward - the BMA's policy to oppose a change in law remains in place until a decision is made to the contrary.

"The results of that poll will inform any subsequent debate and policy decision."

The BMA rejected a motion to adopt a neutral stance at its 2016 annual meeting.

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