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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
BMA drops euthanasia opposition
End-of-life issues stimulate strong opinion
Doctors have voted to drop their opposition to changes to the law which would allow terminally ill patients to be helped to die.

The British Medical Association conference said it should end its current stance against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

When the BMA discussed the issue earlier this week, doctors spoke powerfully for and against change.

But delegates backed a neutral position at Thursday's vote.

There will be people who say we shouldn't have changed, and there will be people who say we should have gone further
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, British Medical Association

They agreed that the question of the criminal law in relation to assisted dying was "primarily a matter for society and for Parliament".

Doctors backed a motion stating: "The BMA should not oppose legislation which alters the criminal law but should press for robust safeguards both for patients and for doctors who not wish to be involved in such procedures."

The BMA now neither opposes or backs campaigns for assisted dying.

Autonomy for patients

Former BMA GP leader Dr John Chisholm supported the neutral option.

He told the conference: "We need to ensure that vulnerable patients are protected, they have quality palliative care and pain relief is available."

Dr Chisholm said the rights of patients needed to be respected so they had more control over the dying process.

But he called for safeguards to protect both doctors and patients who did not wish to be involved in assisted dying.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said any change in the law should include a "conscientious objection clause" so that doctors opposed to helping patients die could abide by their principles.

She accepted some BMA members would not support the move to a neutral position.

"Not everyone will like it. There will be people who say we shouldn't have changed, and there will be people who say we should have gone further."

Liberal Democrat MP, and BMA member, Dr Evan Harris, said: "The role of the medical profession is to press for the necessary safeguards, not to oppose an overdue move towards recognising the need for patients to have more autonomy at the end of their lives."

Private member's bill

Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance said: "When the Royal College of General Practitioners took a neutral position in giving evidence on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill it provoked a storm of angry reaction from their members.

"As a result the RCGP Council voted in favour of re-instating their opposition to euthanasia last Saturday.

"Today's result does not reflect the strong opposition of doctors to a change in the law."

But Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said: "The BMA has recognised a need for reform and that both doctors and patients interests can be better protected than they are now.

"The medical profession is telling Parliament that this is a matter for society to determine."

The BMA conference was debating the issue after Lord Joffe put forward a bill proposing a lifting of the UK right to die ban to "enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his/her own considered and persistent request".

His bill ran out of time during the last parliament, but he has promised to reintroduce it.

Different models have been established in countries where some form of right to die has been allowed.

In Holland, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are responsible for one in 40 deaths.

Whereas, one in 700 deaths in the US state of Oregon are from assisted suicide - voluntary euthanasia is not allowed.

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