A GROUP of more than 40 doctors have hit out at claims that there is a majority within their profession in favour of the legalisation of assisted suicide in Scotland, branding the argument "eye-wateringly preposterous".

Margo MacDonald, an independent MSP who has introduced a Bill that would legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill patients if strict conditions are followed, had said she believed a "silent majority" of doctors were in favour of her proposals. She said many were reluctant to speak out because they feared becoming embroiled in a political row.

However, writing a letter in The Herald today, 44 clinicians, all from NHS Highland, branded the assertion disgraceful and said research had shown most were opposed to assisted suicide, with the position endorsed by several bodies representing medical professionals.

Ms MacDonald defended her stance, saying that only 5% of members of the Royal College Of General Practitioners had taken part in a survey on assisted suicide that found a majority opposed a law change and that, in a consultation to her Bill, several organisations had adopted a neutral stance given that some of their members strongly supported assisted suicide.

Last week, 11 doctors backed Ms MacDonald's proposed law, saying they believed the legislation included appropriate safeguards to prevent abuse. The Lothians MSP welcomed the intervention and said it was indicative of growing support for assisted suicide, both among the public and medical profession.

But in an open letter today, four times as many doctors, headed by Inverness-based palliative care consultant Stephen Hutchison, state: "It is nothing other than disgraceful to make this assertion on hearsay, particularly on a matter of such gravity. The facts demonstrate that she has got it seriously wrong.

"There is established evidence from careful research that the majority of UK doctors (up to 94% in some specialties) are opposed to assisted suicide, a position endorsed by the Royal College Of Physicians, the Royal College Of Surgeons Of England, the British Medical Association, the Royal College Of Physicians And Surgeons Of Glasgow, the Royal College Of General Practitioners, the Association For Palliative Medicine, and the British Geriatrics Society.

"We are senior clinicians who are part of the overwhelming majority of doctors who are opposed to assisted suicide, because we consider it unethical and unsafe. There are plenty more like us."

In the consultation to Ms MacDonald's Bill, the Royal College Of Physicians Of Edinburgh, the Royal College Of General Practitioners Scotland and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Of Scotland neither supported nor objected to the proposals, saying their own surveys had revealed a wide disparity of views.

Ms MacDonald said: "I would never question the right of these clinicians to present their opposition, but they do overstate their support. To quote it as absolute is to extrapolate and exaggerate findings from a tiny minority of respondents."