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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Royal College of Physicians abandons anti-assisted suicide stance in spite of opposition from majority of doctors

The Royal College of Physicians has abandoned its traditional opposition to assisted suicide by declaring itself neutral on the issue in spite of a majority of doctors saying they wished to retain the status quo.

An online poll conducted in February among 35,000 members of the college discovered that a clear majority of doctors opposed assisted suicide.

But because they did not reach a supra-majority of 60 per cent, as the college had demanded, the RCP has changed its policy.

RCP president Professor Andrew Goddard said: “It is clear that there is a range of views on assisted dying in medicine, just as there is in society. We have been open from the start of this process that adopting a neutral position will mean that we can reflect the differing opinions among our membership.

“Neutral means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law and we won’t be focusing on assisted dying in our work. Instead, we will continue championing high quality palliative care services.”

Dignity in Dying, the group previously known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, hailed the change of policy as “fantastic news”, however.

Respondents were asked to give one of three answers to the question of whether the RCP should oppose a change to the law on the assisted suicide in Britain.

A total of 43.4 per cent of doctors said RCP should be opposed to a change in the law on assisted dying, while 31.6 per cent wanted a change and 25 per cent said the college should be neutral.

Members were also asked whether they personally support a change in the law on assisted dying and 49.1 per cent said they were against assisted suicide while 40.5 per cent were in favour of the practice. About 10 per cent were undecided.

More than 55 per cent doctors said they would refuse to participate in assisted suicides if the law was change compared to 24.6 per cent of doctors who said they would be involved. A total of 20.3 per cent of doctors were undecided.

The Suicide Act 1961 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 make it an offence to encourage or assist the suicide of another person.

The RCP changed its policy on the same day that the High Court dismissed an application of a judicial review of the conduct of the poll brought by four doctors, who included Dr Dermot Kearney, president of the Catholic Medical Association, and Dr Adrian Treloar, a Catholic old age psychiatrist.

In a statement, the four said: “We are disappointed but not surprised by decision of the Royal College of Physicians to move to a position of neutrality on assisted suicide.

“The Council of the RCP made clear its desire to see the College adopt a position of neutrality on this issue. It is very difficult to achieve a majority for any particular position in a vote with multiple options, and the conventional approach in such cases is to accept the view of the largest group.

“The College decided to require a 60 per cent supra-majority to maintain opposition to assisted suicide, in a three way question, making today’s outcome almost inevitable.

“The results of this survey justify our decision to challenge the Royal College of Physicians in court over its handling of this poll.”

They said that the views of RCP members and fellows were virtually unchanged since 2014, the last time a survey was undertaken on attitudes to assisted suicide.

The college’s new position was therefore at odds with the opinions expressed by the largest group of grassroots members and fellows, the doctors said.

They said: “The new position of neutrality is supported by a mere quarter of the College.”

The doctors added: “We were disappointed not to receive permission today to challenge the decision of the college in the High Court on technical grounds.

“Sick and vulnerable people are at risk as a result of college neutrality on assisted suicide. The profession has not moved on this issue, so neither should the college.”

More than 2,000 doctors had signed an open letter to the RCP objecting to the way the poll was being conducted.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a professor of palliative medicine and Deputy Speaker in the Lords, was also among those who have spoken out against it.

She said she had not encountered a demand for a supra-majority to uphold the status quo “anywhere in the world”.

“It is a really dangerous precedent because it means that any rogue group can come in say, ‘You have got to have a supra-majority to continue as you have in the past’,” she said. “You could get that in any organisation.”

Baroness Finlay shared additional concerns with other doctors about multiple voting in the poll and had complained about flaws in the system directly to the RCP.

The new policy of the RCP was also criticised by Robert Clarke of ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy group.

“International law protects the right to life of every person and requires countries to take steps to protect the lives of the most vulnerable,” he said.

“The European Court of Human Rights has therefore repeatedly ruled that the right to life cannot be interpreted as containing a ‘right to die’.

The slippery slope is on full public display in the few countries that have already gone down this path.”