The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is to ask its members and fellows for their views on legalising assisted suicide.
The RCP will poll its 35,000 members next month on whether they think current protections should be removed. It will also ask if they would be willing to “participate actively” in the deaths of patients if the practice was legalised.
The College has said it will adopt a neutral position on the subject unless 60 per cent of its members say it should be opposed to or support a change in the law.
Critics said the move away from its previous opposition to assisted suicide signals “inferred support”.
A spokesman for pro-life group Care Not Killing also said the law should remain as it is.
“Every major doctors’ group has previously rejected attempts to change the law.
“They know the pressure, real or perceived, that disabled people and the terminally ill can feel under and how easily a right to die would become a duty to die.
‘Exploitation and coercion’
He continued: “The current laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia exist to protect those who are sick, elderly, depressed or disabled from feeling obliged to end their lives.
“It protects those who have no voice against exploitation and coercion.”
Nola Leach of CARE said “changing the law on assisted suicide would fundamentally alter the relationship between doctor and patient, giving doctors the power to kill as well as cure”.
She said she hoped RCP members would vote to retain the organisation’s opposition, so that it remains “in line with every major disability rights organisation”.
The Christian Medical Fellowship’s Steve Fouch said it is clear the majority of doctors “still do not feel comfortable with being involved with assisted dying and would prefer there not to be a change in the law”.
He added that in countries where the law has changed, the original legislation has been weakened to make a drastically different law.
“Our worry is once you start to remove the safeguards for one group of people and say, effectively, ‘these lives are not worth saving’ you inevitably get pressure to extend it to other groups of people.”
When RCP last carried out such a poll in 2014, 58.4 per cent said they would not actively participate if the law was changed.
In 2015, an attempt to legalise assisted suicide was rejected in the House of Commons.
MPs voted against Robert Marris’ Private Member’s Bill by 330 votes to 118.