A controversial poll by the Royal College of Physicians, in the UK, is expected to result in a change in its position on “assisted dying”. Polling ends on March 1 and the result will be announced later in the month.
If the email poll fails to reach a supermajority of 60% who oppose a change from the status quo of opposition, the official position of the College will change to neutrality.
On the face of it, the procedure for the poll is bizarre. If 59% of the RCP’s 35,000 members support opposition to “assisted dying”, which in any democratic election would be an overwhelming victory with a margin of 18 percent, they still lose.
In fact, a former chair of the RCP’s ethics committee has threatened legal action. Dr John Saunders described the vote as a “sham poll with a rigged outcome”. In a letter to The Guardian he contended that the RCP would change its position to neutral even if the result were the same as a 2014 poll, when 57.5% of the doctors who voted did not “support a change in the law to permit assisted suicide by the terminally ill”.
Another group of doctors wrote a letter to The Times in which they accused a cabal of hijacking the RCP. “We are worried that this move represents a deliberate attempt by a minority on the RCP council to drop the college’s opposition to assisted suicide even if the majority of the membership vote to maintain it.”
The RCP President, Dr Andrew Goddard, insists that the poll is both fair and necessary. “It is important that the RCP represents fairly the views of its full membership. We will go ahead with the survey as planned.”
He is quite aware of the impact that a change would have upon public opinion. “The RCP 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.”
Although some reports assumed that “assisted dying” means “assisted suicide”, the RCP’s definition seems to encompass euthanasia as well: “The supply by a doctor of a lethal dose of drugs to a patient who is terminally ill, meets certain criteria that will be defined by law, and requests those drugs in order that they might be used by the person concerned to end their life.” In Oregon, where only assisted suicide is legal, “a physician prescribes a lethal dose of medication to a patient, but the patient - not the doctor - administers the medication.”
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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