BMJ Urges Move to Neutrality on Death with Dignity

Stethoscope by David DeHoey, on Flickr

In a reasoned move, the British Medical Journal today called for all professional medical bodies in the UK to take a neutral stance on Death with Dignity laws. This viewpoint, put forth in an editorial by Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal, urged the British Medical Association (BMA) and the various royal colleges to move their official position on Death with Dignity from opposition to neutrality.

The editorial followed a recent poll of physicians in England asking if they favor or disfavor a move to neutrality. Of 1,000 physician respondents, 62% agreed that the BMA and royal colleges should move to a position of studied neutrality.

Godlee drew parallels to the position of professional medical bodies on the issue of abortion, noting these same organizations were opposed to abortion until a change in the law imminent. She said, “A change in the law, with all the necessary safeguards, is an almost inevitable consequence of the societal move towards greater individual autonomy and patient choice…and it may not happen until we value death as one of life’s central events and learn to see bad deaths in the same damning light as botched abortions.”

Death with Dignity has been the topic of debate in England for many years. It’s played out in Parliament, in the courts, and in the media.

There have been successive waves of Death with Dignity legislation proposed in Parliament; all blocked. Additionally, the Director of Public Prosecutions released guidelines in 2009 outlining the situations under which someone could be prosecuted for assisting in a suicide, at the request of a woman suffering from MS who wanted to travel to Switzerland to take advantage of their assisted dying legislation, but didn’t want her husband to be prosecuted for traveling with her.

Terry Pratchett, a popular English novelist, has taken up the cause. In 2011, his documentary Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die was released on BBC, and went on to win the Scottish BAFTA award for Single Documentary.

These cultural responses all indicate we’re on the cusp of acceptance of Death with Dignity. Raymond Tallis, Chair of the pro-Death with Dignity group Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, highlighted how the opposition is out of touch with trends in medicine toward patient-centered care. In the Journal press release, he summarized this sentiment well: “…the monstrous cruelty of walking away from a dying patient in unbearable suffering seems more obviously contrary to the ethos of medicine.”

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