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RCP reaffirms position against assisted dying

A survey of the fellows and members of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has shown that a majority of respondents still do not support a change in the law on assisted dying. This broadly reflects the overarching result of the RCP’s 2006 survey, although the number taking this position has fallen.

The RCP recognises that this is a difficult and personal issue for doctors and society, and therefore RCP Council felt it was important to consult fellows and members.The current UK legal position is that assisting another person’s suicide is illegal.

The 2014 survey asked fellows and members four questions on the issue, covering their own personal opinion, and for the first time, a separate question on whether they believed the RCP as an organisation should have a position. The survey included the exact wording of the question RCP first asked in 2006, so that the results could be directly compared to track changes in opinion.

Dr Andrew Goddard, RCP registrar and senior officer with responsibility for professional matters, said:

These results give us a basis for our position on assisted dying and for responding to proposed legislation, now and in the coming years. Whilst there is still a majority against a change in the law, we recognise there has been a shift in opinion over the past eight years, and will continue to engage with members and fellows on this issue.

Survey questions

1. Do you support a change in the law to permit assisted suicide by the terminally ill with the assistance of doctors? 

Yes                                                                      2168        32.3%

Yes, but not by doctors                                   684         10.2%

No                                                                      3858        57.5%

2. We ask you to consider the following statement: '(We) believe that with improvements in palliative care, good clinical care can be provided within existing legislation, and that patients can die with dignity. A change in legislation is not needed.' Do you agree? (The question asked in 2006)

Yes                                   4179        62.5%
No                                    2507        37.5%

Answers from 2006 survey for comparison:

Yes                                   3741        73.2%
No                                    1327        26.0%

Although there is still a majority opposing a change in the law on assisted dying, there has been a 10.7% decrease in the percentage of members and fellows holding this view since the survey was last conducted in 2006.

3. What should the College’s position be on ‘assisted dying’ as defined in the RCP’s consultation document.

In favour                                  1649        24.6%
Opposed                                  2972        44.4%
Neutral/no stance                  2076        31.0%

4. Regardless of your support or opposition to change, in the event of legislation receiving royal assent, would you personally be prepared to participate actively in ‘assisted dying’ as defined in the RCP’s consultation document.

In favour                                   1432        21.4%
Opposed                                   3904        58.4%
Neutral                                     1345        20.1%

A similar question was asked in 2006, and regardless of support for change, the percentages of those prepared to personally participate actively in a process to enable a patient to terminate their own life were very similar to the above results and were as follows:

In favour                                   18.9%
Opposed                                   59.4%
Uncertain                                 19.4%

Notes to editors

Dr Goddard will be available for interview following the debate on Thursday 27 November. For further information and to arrange an interview please contact Linda Cuthbertson, head of PR, on +44 (0)203 075 1254 / 0774 877 7919, or email Linda.Cuthbertson@rcplondon.ac.uk

About the survey

  • The assisted dying survey was sent to 21,674 fellows and collegiate (subscribing) members in the UK, including retired members. Most were surveyed by email, with a postal option run by ERS for those for whom the RCP does not have a current email address. Fellows and members were sent a unique identifying code to ensure that they could only vote once.
  • 8767 people (40%) of those surveyed accessed the survey, but not all answered respondents answered all the questions.
  • The response rate from those who completed the survey was 31%.
  • There were 2,418 free text responses, these will be analysed in due course and the results published in 2015.