Doctors' body running sham consultation to drop opposition to assisted suicide

 The college is taking a neutral position on assisted dying unless 60% want to keep the current opposition.

"Activists have failed to get what they wanted before, so they have persuaded the college’s council to change the rules this time."

On Monday 14 January, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) issued a press release announcing that they were to poll their 35,000 members and fellows in February to ask whether they supported a change to the law on 'assisted dying' (or more accurately, euthanasia and assisted suicide).

Professor Andrew Goddard, RCP president, said:  "The Royal College of Physicians is frequently asked for its stance on this high profile issue, which may be cited in legal cases and parliamentary debate, so it is essential that we base this on an up-to-date understanding of our members’ and fellows’ views."

Unprecedented supermajority requirement

As Steve Fouch of Care not Killing says, it is generally a good thing to poll one's members as a representative body. However, there are major question marks around this poll. Firstly, this is the third poll since 2006, and both those previous polls (the last in 2014) did not show a significant shift in opposition to assisted dying amongst the college's members.

However, what it most shocking is the mechanism of this poll. The press release states that "following this new poll, the RCP will adopt a neutral position until 60% of respondents say that it should be in favour of or opposed to a change in the law." Mr Fouch says: "It seems bizarre (if not undemocratic) to have vote to change policy where the policy change is a fait accompli. So even if 60% of RCP members opposed this move to neutrality, it would still go ahead because there was not a 'supermajority' opposed."

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Daily Mail, further explains that "it is not unusual for a supermajority to be required for a fundamental change in a constitution: it is unprecedented for one to be required to keep things as they are."

Stitch up by Dignity in Dying

A letter Mr Lawson received from Dr David Randall, a registrar in renal medicine at the Royal London Hospital, explains what is going on. "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."

The democratic mandate for this change certainly hasn't come from the membership - in the last RCP poll on the issue, as stated in their press release, over 58% of members and fellows opposed euthanasia, 44% felt the college should remain opposed as part of its policy, and only 31% felt the college should adopt a neutral stance. Less than one in four were in favour of supporting euthanasia.

Activists changing the rules

As Dr Amy Proffitt, executive secretary of the Association for Palliative Medicine, explains, "Activists have failed to get what they wanted before, so they have persuaded the college’s council to change the rules this time. Whereas previously the college adopted the view favoured by the majority of its members – that it should oppose legalisation – it now says it will adopt a position of neutrality unless at least 60 per cent say it should oppose or support legalisation...This device is as arbitrary and nonsensical as it is politically-motivated. It reverses the burden of proof and sets the bar at a level which no group – support, oppose or don’t know – could possibly clear. The aim of activists is, of course, to present the resulting 'neutrality' to Parliament and the public as 'doctors drop their opposition to assisted dying."

Cynical ploy to influence Parliament

Both Dr Proffitt and Mr Fouch have written about the intenability of the RCP taking a neutral position on this life and death issue. It will also create a false impression that opinion among doctors has changed on the issue, when in fact, the majority of doctors oppose a change in the law. Palliative Medicine Physicians, who deal with the dying on a daily basis, are 82% opposed to any change in the law.

Assisted suicide advocates recently lost their latest attempt to change the law through the courts. Despite the resounding defeat in Parliament of the Marris Bill in 2015, this is a cynical ploy to try to get momentum in their direction as they eye future attempts at introducing some form of assisted suicide.

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