Doctors win right to challenge Royal College of Physicians’ controversial decision to go neutral on assisted suicide

News Release

Dermot Kearney, Kathy Myers, David Randall

A group of doctors have today won the legal right to challenge the Royal College of Physicians’ (RCP) controversial decision to go neutral on assisted suicide after overturning a ruling by the Charity Commission.

The doctors launched their legal action against Britain’s oldest medical group after it announced in March that the college was dropping its long-established opposition to assisted suicide, following a poll requiring a 60 per cent supra-majority.

At the time thousands of doctors voiced their concerns at decision to change the College’s position before consulting members, a failure to follow previous procedure and the unprecedented use of a supra- majority invalidated the poll. However, the RCP decided to press on with the change.

Following this decision, three doctors decided to launch legal action to review the decision and processes used by the College. They argued that the RCP had broken charity law. Despite agreement from the Charity Commission that it was a legally sustainable claim, the charities regulator withheld permission to allow the doctors to progress legal action, as they had already raised their concerns with the RCP and warned them not to repeat these mistakes.

Today, in the High Court, this decision by the Charity Commission has been reversed, giving the doctors a green light to take further action against the RCP.

Dr David Randall, one of the claimants commented: “Today’s judgement is good news for doctors and for society.

We believe that it is vitally important that doctors’ voices are heard on the issue of assisted dying, which if legalised would represent the single biggest change in the ethics and practice of medicine for a generation. The unsatisfactory way in which the College has approached this matter, ignoring the advice of its own ethics committee, has left it with a position of neutrality on assisted dying that prevents it from engaging in the public debate on this important issue. We expect the College to be active in championing key concerns such as the protection of vulnerable patients, the promotion of palliative care and hospice services, and the defence of conscientious objection for all healthcare practitioners. Doctors are not neutral about assisted dying, and neither should the College be.”

Paul Conrathe, Human rights solicitor from Sinclairslaw commented:

 “Today the court expressed its’ concern that the decision of the Royal College of Physicians to change its position to neutrality was unlawful and irrational. It was concerned that the College had adopted as its public position the least favoured option in its recent poll.

The College has suppressed the report of its own ethics committee into the results of the poll and adopted a supra-majority criteria that effectively pre-judged the outcome of that poll. Today the court has paved the way for the College to be brought to account.”

For media inquiries, please contact Alistair Thompson on 07970 162225.

ENDS

Notes to Editors

The Case In 2014 the College polled its member on changing the law on assisted suicide. They that nearly six in 10 (57.5 per cent) opposed any change.

The doctors contend that realising there was no appetite within the membership to support assisted suicide legislation, a small but influential group within the RCP sought to change the stance of the College to ‘neutral’ without consulting its members and then structuring a survey that required an unprecedented 60 per cent supra-majority in favour on continuing opposition to assisted suicide legislation.

Supra-majorities are usually used to prevent long-term constitutional changes being implemented by small but temporary majorities and thus they should always default to the status quo – in this instance opposition to legal change. Using a supra-majority in this consultation makes it almost inevitable that the College will drop its historic opposition to assisted suicide.

Crowdfunder

To help fund this legal challenge, on Friday 1 March, the doctors behind the JR launched a crowdfunder. It has already raised nearly £4,000 in just a few days.

The groups of doctors have made it clear any excess funds will be used at their discretion for related campaigns in opposition to assisted suicide. If there are remaining funds 12months after the conclusion of this case, they will go to the Association for Palliative Medicine.

You can see this here: https://www.gofundme.com/rcp-poll-challenge

Links

  • RCP to poll its members: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/rcp- poll-its-members-assisted-dying
  • Survey closed at 5pm on 1 March: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/rcp-poll-its-members- assisted-dying
  • Times covered the row that’s erupted thanks to the poll: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bitter-split-on-assisted- dying-hits-royal-college-of-physicians-vlj38b63w
  • 1,500 doctors back campaign against ‘tacit support’ plan: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1085158/assisted-dying- doctors-plea-campaign-health-debate-for-against-uk-dignitas
  • Judicial Review Crowdfunder: https://www.gofundme.com/rcp-poll- challenge The Doctors
  • Dr Dermot Kearney MRCP, Consultant Cardiologist, Gateshead
  • Dr Kathy Myers FRCP, Retired Consultant in Palliative Medicine, London
  • Dr David Randall MRCP, Registrar in Renal Medicine, London

Assisted dying: Doctors’ group adopts neutral position

BBC News

Hospital doctors have dropped their 13-year opposition to the concept of helping terminally ill patients die.

Following a poll of its members, the Royal College of Physicians has now adopted a neutral stance on the issue of assisted dying.

Some groups have spoken out against the change, saying a respected medical body’s reputation has been damaged. Others called the decision “absurd”. . . [Full text]

Controversy dogs ‘assisted dying’ poll of UK doctors

BioEdge

Michael Cook

A controversial poll by the Royal College of Physicians, in the UK, is expected to result in a change in its position on “assisted dying”. Polling ends on March 1 and the result will be announced later in the month.

If the email poll fails to reach a supermajority of 60% who oppose a change from the status quo of opposition, the official position of the College will change to neutrality.

On the face of it, the procedure for the poll is bizarre. If 59% of the RCP’s 35,000 members support opposition to “assisted dying”, which in any democratic election would be an overwhelming victory with a margin of 18 percent, they still lose.

In fact, a former chair of the RCP’s ethics committee has threatened legal action. Dr John Saunders described the vote as a “sham poll with a rigged outcome”. In a letter to The Guardian he contended that the RCP would change its position to neutral even if the result were the same as a 2014 poll, when 57.5% of the doctors who voted did not “support a change in the law to permit assisted suicide by the terminally ill”.

Another group of doctors wrote a letter to The Times in which they accused a cabal of hijacking the RCP. “We are worried that this move represents a deliberate attempt by a minority on the RCP council to drop the college’s opposition to assisted suicide even if the majority of the membership vote to maintain it.”

The RCP President, Dr Andrew Goddard, insists that the poll is both fair and necessary. “It is important that the RCP represents fairly the views of its full membership. We will go ahead with the survey as planned.”

He is quite aware of the impact that a change would have upon public opinion. “The RCP is frequently asked for its stance on this high profile issue, which may be cited in legal cases and parliamentary debate, so it is essential that we base this on an up-to-date understanding of our members’ and fellows’ views.”

Although some reports assumed that “assisted dying” means “assisted suicide”, the RCP’s definition seems to encompass euthanasia as well: “The supply by a doctor of a lethal dose of drugs to a patient who is terminally ill, meets certain criteria that will be defined by law, and requests those drugs in order that they might be used by the person concerned to end their life.” In Oregon, where only assisted suicide is legal, “a physician prescribes a lethal dose of medication to a patient, but the patient – not the doctor – administers the medication.”


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Assisted dying: 1,500 doctors back campaign against ‘tacit support’ plan

Express

David Maddox

MORE than 1,000 doctors have signed a letter opposing alleged attempts by the Royal College of Physicians to become “neutral” on assisted dying.

The college is locked in a row with members over its position.

Although a poll in 2014 found 58 percent did not support it, the college says unless it has a 60 per cent majority for or against, it will adopt a neutral view. It is conducting a new poll but with a three-way question, which opponents say makes the majority harder to obtain. . .[Full text]