RCP to poll its members on assisted dying

The RCP is to poll its 35,000 members and fellows next month on whether or not there should be a change in the law to permit assisted dying.

Five-years ago, a similar survey found that a majority of respondents did not support a change in the law. Asked whether, regardless of their support or opposition to change, they would personally be prepared to ‘participate actively’ in assisted dying were it legalised, 58.4% said no. These results were similar to those from a 2006 RCP poll.

There was no majority in 2014 on the question of what the RCP position should be. Some 44.4% of respondents thought the RCP should be opposed to assisted dying, 31.0% thought it should be neutral or have no stance and 24.6% opted for the RCP being in favour.

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

Professor Andrew Goddard, RCP president

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.

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. ‘Neutral’ means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law and can reflect the differing views of its members and fellows in discussions with government and others.

The poll will be conducted by email and the results will be released in March.

This press release was altered following a meeting of the RCP Council on 23 January. It originally stated that the RCP will adopt a neutral position until two-thirds of respondents say that it should be in favour of or opposed to a change in the law.

  • The RCP has published blogs by Dr Amy Proffitt, executive secretary of the Association for Palliative Medicine (APM), and Professor Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, who discuss the cases for opposing medical involvement and why the RCP should have a neutral position respectively.

Notes to editors

For further information please contact Mike Blakemore (mike.blakemore@rcplondon.ac.uk), head of media and engagement, on +44 (0)20 3075 1468. Out of office hours please call +44 (0)7896 416409.

The RCP defines assisted dying as: ‘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.’

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. There is no specific prohibition of assisting a suicide in Scottish law, but anyone doing so could be charged with murder or culpable homicide.

The policy for prosecutors in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, issued by the director of public prosecutions, states that a prosecution is more likely to be required if "the suspect was acting in his or her capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, other healthcare professional, a professional carer [whether for payment or not], or as a person in authority, such as a prison officer, and the victim was in his or her care".

The poll will ask the following questions:

1. What should the RCP’s position be on whether or not there should be a change in the law to permit assisted dying? a. In favour, b. Opposed, c. Neutral

2. Do you support a change in the law to permit assisted dying? a. Yes, b. No, c. Undecided

3. Regardless of your support or opposition to change, if the law was changed to permit assisted dying, would you be prepared to participate actively? A. Yes, b. No, c. Don’t Know

4. Is there anything else you want to say about this issue?