NZ Doctors to review right-to-die stand

15 July 2005
Following the British Medical Association's narrowly won vote at their July Conference to withdraw opposition to a law change that would allow doctors to actively help hasten the death of terminally ill patients, New Zealand Medical Association chairman Ross Boswell said that a review is now warrented in New Zealand.

The British Medical Association previously held a position that was strongly opposed to voluntary euthanasia, fearing that patients would cease to have confidence in the commitment of doctors. They held that it was essential for doctors to 'maintain a dedication to care of patients and the preservation of life'.

NZMA chairman stated, "Because the BMA has changed its policy on this, it seems appropriate for us to review ours. It doesn't mean that it will change, but we certainly need to review it.

"The review may be a quick look at it and we decide to do nothing further, or it may involve a full consultation process."

A news report stated that following a discussion at an NZMA board meeting later this month, an ethics committee will be asked to comment, and members could be asked for their views. It warned that the process could take several months.

Claims of 'political chicanery'
Sentiment opposing euthanasia was said to be running at about two to one at the British Medical Association's Conference. An earlier motion, which would have allowed assisted suicide in exceptional circumstances, failed by 58 per cent to 42 per cent.

In the end the deciding vote was not taken until the majority of the 449 delegates had departed, leaving only 174 to vote. A decision to take a neutral position succeeded by 92 to 82.

The motion read: "The BMA should not oppose legislation which alters the criminal law, but should press for robust safeguards both for patients and for doctors who not wish to be involved in such procedures."

On Tuesday, June 28 2005, the second day of the four-day conference, an open debate was held. Based on the proceedings a consensus was to be drafted and motions were be put to a vote two days later, on Thursday.

Several delegates gave brief speeches in a half-hour debate. Most of these strongly opposed euthanasia. One of them pointed out that a few months before the Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners had adopted a neutral position, only to provoke a storm of opposition amongst its members. And a few days before the BMA's meeting, the RCGP was forced to reinstate its policy of opposition.

Although journalists failed to report this 'Machiavellian manipulation', several doctors afterwards wrote to the British Medical Journal to express their disgust.

"The BMA has betrayed some of the most vulnerable members in our society," wrote a psychiatrist, Dr Adrian Treloar. "That it did so by delaying a vote till days after the debate is quite beyond belief. Have we forgotten that duty of care, compassion and the right of each and every patient whom we serve is to be valued and to have their life respected?"

Dr Michael Jarmulowicz, a histopathologist, commented that "on such an important moral issue which underpins the practice of medicine, the medical profession deserves a proper referendum type of vote of all its membership, rather than a change of policy by dubious procedural tactics."

Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas, condemned the late staging of the BMA vote and also attacked the failure to vote on a separate motion that would have maintained the BMA's resistance to terminally-ill patients being helped to die.

Ms Curtis-Thomas, who has told how her paralysed mother changed her mind about wanting to be left to die, has insisted it sends the wrong message that "life is disposable".

She insisted most doctors did not support euthanasia, because they "feared the repercussions from family members".

The vote is sure to have far-reaching consequences. It will +almost certainly boost the chances of a hotly-debated private bill introduced in the British Parliament by Lord Joffe last year to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

Britain has a strong euthanasia lobby and the public is easily confused by the complex debate. Lack of opposition by the BMA will be interpreted as support by the entire medical profession, especially since about 80 per cent of British doctors are members of the BMA.

Secondly, it will help to strengthen the cause of euthanasia supporters in other Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand.

It is feared that if the United Kingdom joins the ranks of the Netherlands, Belgium, the American state of Oregon and Switzerland which already have legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide, it could quickly spread to other countries in Western Europe and other states in the US.