In an historic decision, the British Medical Association voted on June
30 to drop its long-standing opposition to assisted suicide and
euthanasia. Delegates at the annual representative conference agreed
that “the BMA should not oppose legislation which alters the criminal
law but should press for robust safeguards both for patients and for
doctors who do not wish to be involved in such procedures”.
This vote is sure to have far-reaching consequences. First, it will
boost the chances of a hotly-debated private bill introduced in the
British Parliament by Lord Joffe last year to legalise assisted suicide
for terminally ill patients. Britain has a strong euthanasia lobby and
the public is easily bamboozled by the complex debate. Lack of
opposition will quickly be interpreted as support by entire medical
profession, especially since about 80 per cent of British doctors are
members of the BMA.
Second, it will strengthen the hand of euthanasia supporters in other
Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand. At the present
time, legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide is confined to the
Netherlands, Belgium, the American state of Oregon and Switzerland. If
the United Kingdom joins their ranks, it could quickly spread to other
countries in Western Europe and other states in the US.
With so much at stake, more ought to be known about the shabby and
undemocratic route to the BMA’s decision. The true story is that
hundreds of delegates were not clamouring to help ease the wretched and
dying out of their pain. In a shameless display of political chicanery,
supporters of euthanasia manipulated the meeting into adopting a
position which was clearly opposed to the wishes of the majority.
Bolshevik apparatchiks could not have been more adroit — or more cynical.
Here’s what really happened, according to doctors who attended the meeting.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are hot topics in Britain. On Tuesday,
June 28, the second day of the four-day conference, an open debate was
held. Based on the proceedings a consensus was to be drafted and
motions were be put to a vote two days later, on Thursday. Several
delegates gave brief speeches in a half-hour debate. Most of these
strongly opposed euthanasia. One of them pointed out that a few months
before the Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners had
adopted a neutral position, only to provoke a storm of opposition
amongst its members. And a few days before the BMA’s meeting, the RCGP
was forced to reinstate its policy of opposition.
Curiously, the chair allowed a non-delegate to address the meeting,
Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who once worked as a hospital doctor.
He was the most polished and convincing of the speakers — and he used
the floor to argue strongly in favour of legalising euthanasia.
Nonetheless, delegates who attended the debate felt that sentiment
amongst the members was running two to one against euthanasia. An
earlier motion which would have allowed assisted suicide in exceptional
circumstances failed by 58 per cent to 42 per cent. It seemed clear
that the official position of the BMA was not about to change.
However, the vote took place in the closing minutes of the four-day
conference. Only 174 of the 449 delegates actually voted because many
had already departed. The motion which was presented to this rump was a
curious one. Instead of deciding simply whether or not the prevailing
policy should be changed, three confusing options were presented: the
status quo, firm opposition, withdrawal of opposition and support for
euthanasia. It was up to the chair, a supporter of euthanasia, to
decide the order these options should be presented to the meeting.
Very cleverly, the chair chose support for euthanasia first. It lost by
101 to 73. Then withdrawal of opposition was put to the meeting. It
carried by 92 to 82. Whether the BMA should maintain its long-standing
opposition was never even put to a vote at all. The votes of 19
swinging voters out of 449 changed the course of medical history in
Although journalists failed to notice this Machiavellian manipulation, several doctors soon wrote to the British Medical Journal to
express their disgust. “The BMA has betrayed some of the most
vulnerable members in our society,” wrote a psychiatrist, Dr Adrian
Treloar. “That it did so by delaying a vote till days after the debate
is quite beyond belief. Have we forgotten that duty of care, compassion
and the right of each and every patient whom we serve is to be valued
and to have their life respected?”
And Dr Michael Jarmulowicz, a histopathologist, commented that “on such
an important moral issue which underpins the practice of medicine, the
medical profession deserves a proper referendum type of vote of all its
membership, rather than a change of policy by dubious procedural
Supporters of euthanasia often argue that the public wants it and
doctors want it. If this is true, why do they have to stoop to the
grubby dodges of shady trade unions to get what they want? Honesty and
transparency are supposed to be the hallmarks of legalised euthanasia.
They were not apparent at the BMA’s vote. It is a chilling start to a
well-organised campaign to make assisted suicide and euthanasia the law
of the land.
Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.