A group of British doctors have filed a legal challenge against the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) after it held a recent poll on euthanasia that the group believe was conducted in a misleading way.

The four doctors claim the poll aimed to force the Royal College to abandon its longstanding opposition to euthanasia.

The RCP announced that it would conduct a poll of its members on euthanasia in January. This attracted great controversy by requiring a 60% ‘super-majority’ in favour of any outcome or else the College, which represents more than 35,000 doctors, would change its stance to ‘neutral’.

It had long been formally opposed to the legalisation of euthanasia and in 2014, 57.6% of its members opposed a change in the law that would legalise assisted suicide. 

Robert Clarke, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International, said: “The Royal College of Physicians, an organisation of doctors who have chosen to dedicate their work to saving lives, should stay true to this calling. By changing its stance on euthanasia to ‘neutral’ it could pave the way for a change in UK law.

"The detrimental effects of this on individuals and society have become very clear in countries that have already gone down this path. There is nothing progressive about a society that refuses to care for its most vulnerable members. This means providing excellent medical treatment and palliative care rather than euthanasia. Given what the RCP represents, it would be disappointing to see the organisation abandon its established opposition to euthanasia-especially when the change is promoted by a small minority with political motives."

The group of doctors have argued that use of a ‘super-majority’ vote on such issues is without precedent in professional organisations in the UK. They have said that it appears to be a tactical move to give a strong boost to the campaign to change the law on assisted suicide.

The largest euthanasia lobby group in the UK has previously identified the opposition of medical bodies as a key obstacle to changing to law. Two well-known patrons of this organisation and active campaigners for legalising euthanasia are on the RCP Council – the internal body driving the RCP poll. The four doctors are seeking to challenge the poll on the basis that it is “unfair, irrational, and a breach of legitimate expectation.”

The introduction of euthanasia laws in other European countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, have seen the number of euthanasia deaths increase every year. In Belgium, these laws were amended in 2014 to also include children.

When the poll was launched, Professor Andrew Goddard, RCP president, said: "The Royal College of Physicians is frequently asked for its stance on this high profile issue, which may be cited in legal cases and parliamentary debate, so it is essential that we base this on an up-to-date understanding of our members’ and fellows’ views."

Following this new poll, the RCP will adopt a neutral position until 60% of respondents say that it should be in favour of or opposed to a change in the law. ‘Neutral’ means the RCP neither supports nor opposes a change in the law and can reflect the differing views of its members and fellows in discussions with government and others.