The chairman of the Royal College of Physicians’ ethics committee has resigned after it controversially dropped its opposition to legalising assisted suicide.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) announced last month it was abandoning its formal opposition and would instead be neutral on the issue following a controversial survey of doctors’ opinions.
But now Albert Weale, an academic who chaired the RCP’s ethics committee, has resigned, arguing the decision was “not coherent” and “unfair”. Two other members of his committee have also walked out.
The resignations will intensify pressure on the college — Britain’s oldest and most prestigious medical association — to review its new stance on assisted dying.
A group of doctors has also begun legal proceedings in an effort to force the RCP to back down. The group has raised £24,000 through online crowdfunding to fund their legal action.
Professor Weale, emeritus professor of political theory and public policy at University College London, said he saw no reason why the RCP’s governing council had decided to abandon its previous position, which stated the organisation could not support changing the law on assisted suicide.
“There seems to be no chain of coherent reasoning leading to the council’s own position – a situation I regret deeply,” he said.
He also attacked the handling of the survey of doctors which led to the change in stance.
The poll asked doctors if the RCP should be for, against or neutral on assisted suicide; 43 per cent voted for opposition, 32 per cent backed changing the law, and just 25 percent voted for neutrality.
But unlike previous polls on the same question, the RCP’s council had decided in advance they should automatically switch to neutrality unless any of the three options was backed by a super-majority of 60 per cent. As a result, the RCP announced last month it would be neutral on the issue, despite only one in four doctors endorsing that position.
In his resignation letter, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, Professor Weale told the president of the RCP Andrew Goddard that the way the survey had been set up presented “considerable problems of procedural unfairness”.
The RCP’s governing council had not given him any explanation how they landed on the super-majority scheme, Professor Weale complained. This meant his ethics committee had effectively been wasting its time in providing detailed advice to the council, which seemed to have already made its mind up.
“There is simply no point in the committee offering reasoned positions if they are ignored by council,” he wrote.
David Randall, the doctor leading the legal challenge to the college’s position, said Professor Weale’s resignation only bolstered his case.
“These resignations from the RCP’s ethics committee add to the concern that the college has rushed into a position of neutrality on assisted dying without proper process, and without fully considering the implications of neutrality,” he said.
Professor Goddard said he was saddened Professor Weale had resigned his post.
The ethics committee’s advice to remain opposed to changing the law on euthanasia was “highly valued” by the college’s governing council, Professor Goddard said, but they had decided against follow it.
Instead they thought “the RCP should be within the debate and that neutral was the most appropriate position for the RCP to adopt”.
“I was also saddened that two other members of the committee decided to resign following this but obviously respect their decisions.”