The BMA is facing a grassroots revolt at its annual conference this week over its refusal to oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Local branches have put down over 20 resolutions condemning the leadership's stance on the issue and calling for a policy of clear opposition to the practice of physician-assisted suicide.

The conference organisers have bowed to the grassroots backlash by tabling for debate a motion that would commit the BMA to outright opposition to any form of so-called mercy killing.

The motion – to be voted on at the Belfast conference on June 29 states:

That this Meeting:

(i) believes that the ongoing improvement in palliative care allows patients to die with dignity;
(ii) insists that physician-assisted suicide should not be made legal in the UK;
(iii) insists that voluntary euthanasia should not be made legal in the UK;
(iv) insists that if euthanasia were legalised there should be a clear demarcation between those doctors who would be involved in it and those who would not;
(v) requests that all members of the BMA be balloted on this issue.

The above Agenda Committee composite motion will be proposed by the Buckinghamshire Division.

If carried, the resolution would mark an abrupt U-turn by the BMA. Only last year at its conference, after a thinly attended debate, representatives voted narrowly to replace the association's historic opposition to euthanasia with a position of official neutrality.

The grassroots move is backed by the Care Not Killing Alliance, a coalition of over thirty organisations, which recently successfully led opposition to Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. It is also a challenge to the authority of Dr Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA's ethics committee, who both publicly and privately has been a long-standing supporter of so-called 'assisted dying'.

Last year, in an extraordinary manoeuvre, Dr Wilks combined the roles of being chairman of the annual conference and its agenda committee, as well as chairing the ethics committee, which provides expert advice to the BMA membership.

Relying on procedural tactics that have been widely criticised, he managed to secure a narrow vote in favour of neutrality. These tactics provoked member resignations and fierce accusations of vote rigging, and led ultimately to the current uprising.

Dr John Wenham, a Salford GP and past member of the BMA ethics committee commented:

"The BMA has become increasingly out of touch with grass root members. This was demonstrated at last year's ARM when the voting by elected representatives on the issue of physician assisted suicide was very left of much larger polls of medical opinion."

"The BMA ethics committee chairman appears to have co-opted 4 very pro-euthanasia members, namely Len Doyal, John Harris, Sheila McLean and Evan Harris to advise the committee. I have witnessed them heavily influence debate and their views are quite displaced from those of most practicing doctors."

Dr Kevin O'Kane, chairman of the North West Thames regional consultants committee, said:

“The crucial vote was taken by only 93 surviving members of ARM on the last session of a 4-day conference, when most of the delegates had already left for home. The timing of the vote and the irregular motion, both crafted by the Agenda Committee, were deliberately engineered to optimise the chances of a vote in favour of physician-assisted suicide.

“The Chairman of the Agenda Committee also happened to be the Chairman of ARM and, co-incidentally, of the BMA Ethics Committee, Dr Michael Wilks, a vociferous member of the euthanasia lobby.

“If this were a third world presidential election, I'm sure that the international observers would have one or two way comments about the lack of a transparent democratic process.

The stance of neutrality has since been ridiculed by commentators who have pointed out that on issues such as smoking, junk food in schools, and diseases in the third world, the BMA has spoken out strongly. But it has been silent about an issue where its views have direct relevance.

The BMA's 2005 volte-face also put it out of line with the vast majority of medical opinion. Polls among members of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Association for Palliative Medicine have recently shown strong opposition to euthanasia. The BMA's stance also isolates it from the World Medical Association which still strongly opposes assisted dying. The House of Lords vote on Joffe's Bill on May 12, which was preceded by intense lobbying on both sides, produced a 148-100 majority against physician-assisted suicide.

Dr Wilks has also co-opted supporters of euthanasia from the political and academic liberal elite onto his ethics committee.

Two of these people (Bioethics and Law Professors Sheila McLean and John Harris), along with Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris who had been elected in his own right, actually gave evidence 'in a private capacity' on behalf of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society to the Lords' Select Committee on Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill last autumn, whilst Dr Wilks was acting as the official spokesman for BMA policy.

Another co-opted member, Bioethics Professor Len Doyal, a long time advocate of the view that euthanasia is the path of 'beneficence' for some mentally incapacitated people.

Doyal caused more controversy earlier this month by arguing for the legalisation of non-voluntary euthanasia in which doctors would decide whether a patient's life was worth living and whether it should be ended.

The pro-euthanasia bias of the BMA ethics committee has been condemned by scores of doctors on the internet forum doctors.net.uk, which has 120,000 UK doctors as members. Recent postings said it was “outrageous” of Professor Doyal, not even a doctor, to pretend to represent the views of the BMA.

One doctor declared: It is outrageous that lawyers and philosophers with no experience whatsoever of caring for dying patients should be making policy on euthanasia for the BMA. If Michael Wilks is to speak on behalf of doctors then he should represent doctors' views and not push his own personal agenda.”

Forthcoming media opportunities

Care Not Killing, backed by the Association for Palliative Medicine and the Northern Ireland Hospice Association along with numerous supporters within the BMA, will have a major presence at the BMA conference in Belfast from June 26 to 29.

CNK will hold a press conference on the morning of Wednesday June 28 at the Hilton Hotel Belfast to be chaired by Dr Peter Saunders, the CNK campaign director, to make the case for a change of BMA policy. Further details to be advised shortly.

CNK will hold a fringe meeting on the evening of Wednesday June 28 to highlight the dangers posed by the BMA's existing policy. The meeting will be addressed by Prof Ilora Baroness Finlay, professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University and Velindre Hospital.

There will be a further CNK media briefing before the BMA vote at the Hilton Hotel, Belfast on the morning of Thursday June 29. CNK spokespeople will be available for comment and interview after the vote.