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Are doctors' right to protest on life support?

Are doctors' right to protest on life support?

Matthew Biggerstaff


Reading time: two minutes

It’s a doctors’ duty to put public safety at the forefront of their minds, protecting not only their own patients, but anyone who could reasonably be affected. However, outside of the hospital and medical practice, this duty becomes slightly cloudier. 

GP Dr Sarah Benn is currently partaking in a hearing with the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) to decide whether she should be struck off after taking part in a Just Stop Oil protest in 2022. It’s important to add that this hearing is also allegedly due to a breach of a civil injunction, which had prohibited Benn from protesting outside of Kingsbury Oil Terminal. 

Benn told the General Medical Council (GMC) that her actions were consistent with the medical ethics of putting public safety paramount, and that the climate crisis was the “most significant existential threat to global health we have ever faced”.

According to Just Stop Oil, there are three GPs who’ll be heard at trial for protesting the climate crisis.  

Dr Patrick Hart, who invaded the Twickenham pitch during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final last year, spoke similarly. Hart believed that it’s his “duty as a doctor” to stand up against, what he believes to be, a huge crisis. Hart had actually previously faced trial for blocking Lambeth Bridge in 2022, in a climate protest with Extinction Rebellion. Hart was eventually acquitted, with the presiding Judge Robinson stating that he was impressed with the “integrity and rationality” of his beliefs. Hart is one of the doctors awaiting trial with the MPTS to see whether he’ll be struck off, with the outcome of Benn’s case, which is due to conclude later this month, likely to set a precedent. 

Due to the controversial new protesting laws introduced in 2022, the bar required for automatic disciplinary measures on doctors has been lowered. The GMC states that doctors have the right to campaign on issues. However, what’s deemed as a ‘legal protest’ is becoming less and less viable. As a result, it’s been argued by some that for real change to take place, protesters must bend the rules. It’s seen as unfair by many that doctors should fear their jobs being taken away by acting, as they see it, within the instructions set out to all medical practitioners through medical ethics.  

In 2022, the head of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Richard Smith, called for the medical profession to be the forefront of the climate change movement. However, as government opposition to climate activists is becoming stricter and protesting doctors may lose their license to practice, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for doctors to follow their medical ethics.  

Benn’s hearing is due to conclude by 24 April 2024 and will surely pave the way for these future hearings, sending a message one way or the other.