Open Letter to MPs and Peers about what happened at the BMA ARM in June 2005

Just before the summer recess parliamentarians were sent a statement from Ms Sue Marks, Head of the Parliamentary Unit of the British Medical Association, regarding the Association's change in policy, making it now neutral on physician-assisted suicide.

As two BMA members present at the Annual Representatives' Meeting where this took place we consider Ms Marks' description of the event to be highly misleading. It is vital that parliamentarians understand that the whole process was highly questionable and the pro-euthanasia group achieved their vote - by a small majority of only 93 for and 82 against – through clever manipulation of procedure.

In the year 2000 it became clear at a BMA Consensus Conference on Physician Assisted Suicide that, contrary to the majority opinion of grass roots BMA members, a significant number of BMA Ethics Committee Members – including chairman Dr Michael Wilks – determinedly supported both euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Their campaign has been strengthened by the input of 'expert' members co-opted (not elected) to the Committee from the political and academic liberal elite, three of whom gave evidence to the Lords' Select Committee on behalf of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society last autumn. Dr Michael Wilks, has made a number of attempts to change the Association's policy and in particular earlier this year used his position to try to persuade the Students' and Young Doctors' Divisions to drop their opposition to euthanasia – a move which was singularly unsuccessful.

This summer, however, things were different. As well as being chairman of the Ethics Committee providing 'expert input', Dr Wilks was made Chairman of the Annual Representatives' Meeting which was to consider the issue of euthanasia, and was also appointed Chairman of the Agenda Committee (which ultimately became responsible for framing motions to be considered). At the start of the Representative meeting, Dr Wilks used his position as chairman to introduce a new procedure for deciding the issue. In a departure from past protocol none of the motions submitted by BMA divisions were to be voted on. Instead, on the Tuesday there was a debate for half an hour on draft motions submitted to the conference by councils and divisions from around the country. The Agenda Committee was then deputed to submit a Motion based on the debate in which a majority of speakers (six of eleven) were strongly opposed to any change in BMA policy: the motion would be voted upon two days after the original debate at the end of the Conference! However, instead of one Motion based on the debate, the Agenda Committee submitted three Motions. The first opposed euthanasia and assisted suicide; the second supported a neutral stand on physician-assisted suicide; and the third Motion supported the adoption of a policy in favour of the legalisation of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. These were not voted upon until one hour before the end of the meeting when more than half of the delegates had left. Furthermore, delegates were not given written copies of the motions until just before the vote – so many delegates did not even see the Motions which – furthermore – had never been discussed by grass roots members and divisions.

The manipulations did not end there. As Chairman of the Conference Dr Wilks sought permission for the order of voting on the Motions to be reversed – so that the motion in favour of legalised euthanasia came first with the motion in favour of the BMA taking a neutral stand on physician assisted suicide second and the motion in favour of retaining the current policy third. In the event, the last motion was never voted on because the second motion won a majority. Thus 93 delegates were enabled to reach a decision for 133,000 grass roots members on a Motion the latter had never seen – let alone discussed. Such anti-democratic procedures to force through a Bill in Parliament would cause a public uproar and we urge you to take these matters into account if the BMA's new position is used in debate to support any attempts to legalise euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Peter Saunders, General Secretary, Christian Medical Fellowship
Tony Cole, Chairman, Medical Ethics Alliance