Saturday, 5 July 2014

Doctors strike back at BMJ editors over assisted suicide stance

BMJ editors Fiona Godlee (pictured) and Tony Delamothe are long-time supporters of decriminalising assisted suicide and have frequently used their editorial position in Britain’s most widely read medical journal to advance their cause.

This week they have written an editorial in support of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying bill which has understandably received a lot of media coverage (see here, here and here) and has got the blogosphere buzzing (see here, here, here and here).

They argue that assisted dying should be legalised because respecting ‘choice’ (autonomy) is now a more important priority than preserving life.

The BMJ is editorially independent from the British Medical Association (BMA) but is paid for by the subscriptions of BMA members, most of whom do not support changing the law.

So it is not surprising that their editorial has generated a lot of correspondence, almost all of it opposing Godlee and Delamothe.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA council has said:

‘There are strongly held views within the medical profession on both sides of this complex and emotive issue.

The BMA remains firmly opposed to legalising assisted dying. This issue has been regularly debated at the BMA's policy forming annual conference and recent calls for a change in the law have persistently been rejected.

The BMJ is a wholly owned subsidiary of the BMA, and quite rightly has editorial independence. Its position on assisted dying is an editorial decision and does not reflect the views of the BMA or the medical profession. Our focus must be on making sure every patient can access the very best of palliative care, which empowers patients to make decisions over their care.’

A letter in the same print edition (so received before the editorial was published) from RCGP Council Chair Maureen Baker makes clear that the recent RCGP consultation on ‘assisted dying’ was comprehensive and conclusively in favour of no change to the law.

‘Our recent consultation on assisted dying was one of the most comprehensive ever undertaken, with 1700 members responding from all four nations of the UK.

The result was conclusive—77% of members who submitted responses directly to the college indicated that the RCGP should maintain its opposition to a change in the law.

Of the 28 RCGP bodies and groups who responded, 20 reported a majority view in favour of maintaining the college’s opposition to a change in the law and three reported a majority view in favour of a “neutral” stance. None reported a majority view in favour of active support for a change in the law.’

There is also an excellent contribution, again the same print edition, from Rob George, professor of palliative care, Cicely Saunders Institute, King’s College London. 

In an article titled ‘We must not deprive dying people of the most important protection’ he argues that the safety of vulnerable people must take priority over the determined wishes of individuals. Hard cases are already dealt with mercifully under the law which does not need changing.

‘Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, former president of the High Court, said, “Laws, like nation states, are more secure when their boundaries rest on natural frontiers. The law that we have rests on just such a frontier . . . The law is there to protect us all. We tinker with it at our peril.”

For me the real question is this: “Which is worse: not to kill people who want to die or to kill people who might want still to live?” In my experience it is impossible to separate those who might want to die from those who believe they ought to die and whose view is pretty well never “settled.” No one can be sure that some people not now at risk will find themselves so were the law to change.

A full blooded expression of autonomy includes the responsibility at times to restrain oneself on behalf of another: when it comes to having our lives ended, let’s keep it that way. Once this line is crossed there is no going back.’

I was briefly quoted in the Telegraph making much the same point about the limits of autonomy:

‘While autonomy is important it has to be balanced against other principles including public safety.

None of us believes autonomy is absolute, if we did we would have to say that there was no place for law because every single law restricts personal autonomy.’

Godlee and Delamothe appear not to understand that autonomy has limits. They are also well out of step with medical opinion and do not speak for the medical profession.

About two thirds of doctors in most surveys are opposed to any change in the law along with all the major medical institutions including the BMA, RCGP, RCP, British Geriatric Society and the Association for Palliative Medicine.

In a free society choice is important, but it has its limits. The duty to protect life trumps the so-called ‘right to die’.


  1. Part of me wants this horrid law to be passed, provided that is prevents a human's life being taken away from him without his express, informed consent. That's the the sort of "safeguard" they'd put in an assisted euthanasia law without even thinking twice about it, think that is was mere lip-service that could be got around in practice.

    Some of use could then use the "informed consent" safeguard to shut down the abortion industry. None of abortion's victims have ever given express, informed consent, to be put to death even before that are even born.

  2. Would you rather go into a hospice or you can get raped to death. Which do you pick?

    I'd get raped. At least it'd take less than six months or a year.

    1. It is quite plain that you have never been raped. For the many people in the world who have actually been raped, if you would like to express your views about this emotive issue, then please use another analogy.

  3. Why should everyone be forced to live, Peter? If you were tortured for five years, you'd probably change your mind.

    1. But opposition to this Bill isn't just about being forced to live. It's about being "forced" to die.
      And if anyone thinks that isn't going to happen, then look at the '67 abortion act. It was brought in for equally merciful, laudable reasons, but one MP behind the bill has recently been quoted as saying that he never thought the act would be used to abort girls in preference for boys which is what is happening now (in some instances).
      Do we really want supporters of this bill in 40 years saying "we never thought it would be used to dispose of people just because they..." ? fill in your own reason that today we would find unacceptable.
      (Regarding abortion, studies have been made - and even been reported clearly on a mainstream respected news broadcaster - that the mental health of the woman is no worse or better if she has an abortion or has the unwanted baby. So the 'legal reason' for abortion used in 97% of cases is not valid. So much for safeguards and legislation.)

  4. During my 16 years living in England, I spent three years (1995 to 1998) living with and caring for several elderly people suffering from advanced dementia.

    This year, I self-published The Carer, a short e-novel based on my time as a carer:

    The e-novel, an up-close portrayal of a slow slide into the final stages of dementia and death, encourages people to consider just how far down that road they themselves would be prepared to go if they were diagnosed with dementia ...

    In addition, my carer experience taught me to question the way in which western society currently appears to value quantity and longevity of life over quality. Working for long periods as a geriatric caregiver showed me that just because a person continues to draw breath, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually alive in the way most of us tend to define it. Most people don’t experience dementia up close. If they did, they would realize many people with advanced forms of the illness are trapped in a truly terrifying, living hell with no way out except fading slowly and somewhat agonizingly into a merciful death. I often felt my charges were closer to anxious zombies than human beings – and did often wonder about the ethics of prolonging life as long as possible under those circumstances.

    I personally would never want to experience that kind of ‘life’. Nor would I want to watch a parent go through it. When it comes to dementia, I like to think I’ll quit while I’m ahead. The job forced me to take another look at the current debate over both the right-to-die and assisted dying. It’s fair to say I’m now much less in favour of prolonging life at all costs than I was before I went into geriatric care work.

    Perhaps we should be a little more like Latin American – where people appear to embrace and celebrate death, rather than attempt to ignore it and lock it away behind closed doors.

    A “gritty urban thriller with a social conscience”, The Carer offers a tale of elder abuse, “patricide by proxy and the corrosive effects of power." Primarily, The Carer is a Faustian tale that takes a look at what can happen when you outsource responsibility for your loved ones to people who don’t love them.

    Buy The Carer for US$0.99: