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In a vote this week, the British Medical Association (BMA) took a clear stand against physician assisted suicide. 65% of the 500 doctors at the BMA’s meeting in Belfast voted against the proposal to accept assisted suicide. This represents a significant development from previous trends.

In a narrow vote last year the BMA refused to take a position against assisted suicide, though individuals and pro-life organizations have said the practice is going on quietly and the courts have ruled that disabled patients do not have the right not to be dehydrated to death.

In July 2005 the BMA was discussing whether to support then-pending legislation in the House of Lords that would legalize assisted suicide. Members voted narrowly not to oppose the legislation. Lord Joffe, the author of the bill, praised the BMA’s decision to stay out of the way of the movement that pro-life advocates say leads inevitably to active euthanasia.

He said, “The BMA’s decision to adopt a neutral stance is an important move because the Government is really thinking carefully about the issue.”

The bill was blocked in May, but Lord Joffe and its supporters have vowed to reintroduce it until it is passed into law. A poll of UK doctors showed that 70 per cent were opposed to assisted suicide.

Dr Andrew Davies, from Cardiff, told the BBC that terminally ill patients in his care had “a lot on their minds,” but for many their main concern was the effect their illness was having on their families.

“My worry is that a right to die will become a duty to die, a duty to unburden their families.”

[Hilary White, London, 29June06]