More than two-thirds of GPs are in favour of the RCGP dropping its opposition to assisted dying when it finishes its consultation exercise, a Pulse survey has revealed.
The survey questions, which follow a similar survey being run by the RCGP, found that 38% of 689 GP respondents said they favoured the college adopting a neutral stance on assisted dying, while 31% said the college should go even further and support a change in the law to allow doctors to help the terminally ill patients to die in the UK.
But GP leaders have said that the RCGP consultation has been kept ‘deliberately low-key’, and that the nature of the debate means that even a call for a more neutral stance could be used as evidence by advocates of legalised assisted dying.
The latest debate on assisted dying was sparked by Lord Falconer of Thoroton’s assisted dying bill tabled in May and an article from former RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada in the British Journal of General Practice suggesting GPs should ‘let society decide’.
The BMA continues to oppose legalising assisted dying and recently announced its opposition to a parliamentary bill on legalising assisted death introduced in Scotland.
However, the college - which is currently opposed to a change in legislation - is consulting its members on the issue, with a view to potentially changing its stance to neutral.
Dr Richard Vautrey, newly elected RCGP Council member and deputy chair of the GPC, told Pulse the college had deliberately kept the consultation ‘low key’ to prevent strongly held opinions influencing the debate too much.
Dr Vautrey said: ‘It has been deliberately kept within the membership, so without inviting responses from outside the RCGP or having too much debate outside the college. Surveys can be self-selecting, so those who are most impassioned tend to respond.’
He added: ‘When both the RCGP and BMA have announced this in a more overt way, then their membership have made it very clear they did not think it appropriate to make a change in their position.’
Even if the Pulse findings were replicated by the consultation, it would not necessarily reflect a need for a different approach, Dr Vautrey said.
He added: ‘I don’t think this would necessarily lead to any change, if the majority are still saying there should not be a change in the law. Even the consequences of shifting to a neutral position will be used by those who advocate for assisted dying and a change in favour of their position, so it becomes very difficult when you start to engage in this type of debate.’
‘I think the intention is to use [the RCGP] survey to help make a judgement within the ethics committee on whether they need to do anything – it’s an initial sounding board before committing to anything further. They’re using this to gauge opinion.’
Dr Una Coales, also newly elected to RCGP Council, said her personal view is the college should be neutral on assisted dying.
She said: ‘I think because we’re the Royal College of GPs rather than palliative care physicians – I don’t think we should voice an opinion. I think I would be amongst the 30% in the middle supporting a neutral stance.’
‘I do empathise with those who are against it. It’s really difficult – I think that’s why GPs are all over the place. But the college shouldn’t actually oppose it – it’s too political.’
Dr Margaret McCartney, RCGP Council member and a GP in Glasgow, said she was personally strongly opposed to any change in the law.
Dr McCartney said: ‘I don’t know of any system which could provide assurance that ill, elderly, disabled or vulnerable people would be fully protected if assisted dying became legal. I would never want a patient to feel that they were “too expensive” or not “worthwhile” enough for taxpayers to care for.’
Survey results in full
The RCGP is currently consulting on whether it should become the first medical college to drop its opposition to the legalisation of assisted dying. What stance do you believe it should take?
The RCGP should continue to oppose any change in the law on assisted dying - 213 (31%)
The RCGP should have a neutral stance on assisted dying – 261 (38%)
The RCGP should support a change in the law to permit assisted dying – 215 (31%)
(Total respondents = 689)
About the survey
Pulse launched this survey of readers on 15 October, collating responses using the SurveyMonkey tool. The 26 questions asked covered a wide range of GP topics, to avoid selection bias on any one issue. The survey was advertised to readers via our website and email newsletters, with a prize draw for a Samsung Tab 2 tablet as an incentive to complete the survey.
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to specify their job title. A small number of non-GPs were screened out to analyse the results for this question. GPs were also asked on a voluntary basis to provide their GMC number and 586 of the 689 GP respondents did so, although these were not verified or used to screen out respondents.