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GPs must find their voices for assisted dying debate

Last month, Lord Falconer gave a First Reading of a bill that would ‘enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes’.

Before considering the Bill itself, though, this question must be answered: should doctors have a collective voice in this debate? 

Just as the Assisted Dying Bill approaches its first hearing in the House of Lords, two of the most influential doctors in the UK have argued publically that our professional bodies should not hold a view on this issue.

Editor of The BMJ, Fiona Godlee, and former RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada reason that it is for Parliament, not doctors, to decide the rights and wrongs of assisted dying. Therefore, they argue, the BMA and the RCGP should change their stance from opposition to a change in the law, to a neutral position.

Dr Godlee has also made a significant move in this debate by proclaiming the BMJ to be in favour of a change in the law, while Professor Gerada made the case for neutrality lin the BJGP last year. (She also reiterated this view recently on Twitter).

Professor Gerada claimed that her view was not more or less valid by virtue of her having been RCGP chair, and that the RCGP collective view ‘should not trump that of the man on the Clapham omnibus’. And as editor of one of the most influential UK journals, Godlee has not hesitated to make her views known. 

No-one is arguing that doctors should decide this issue: that is Parliament’s job. But neither the BMA nor the Royal Colleges are trying to decide the law. They are simply opposing a change in it.

There are many voices to be heard in this debate, of course, not least patients who would seek to end their own lives as a result of any change to the law, and their families. There are also ethicists, legal experts and certainly the man on the street who should all be listened to.

But doctors are the only ones to see both the suffering of both those who would wish to end their lives, and the vulnerability of those who may be affected by a change in the law. We are neither judge nor jury, as it were, but expert witnesses. As a profession we have a diversity of opinion, but our duty to stand up for vulnerable people has so far kept the profession opposed to any form of euthanasia, and is arguably one of the most important roles doctors have in society.

It will come as no surprise that I am not in favour of assisted dying – I know many doctors hold an opposite view with equal passion. But even if we disagree on the contents of the Bill, surely other GPs will agree that we have a vital role in this debate.

GPs must not be so falsely humble that we are silent, or so overwhelmed with the stresses of general practice that we fail to speak out. Our patients deserve more than that, especially those who cannot speak up for themselves. 

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68.