Physician-Assisted Suicide: The AMA’s Latest Quandary

Physician-Assisted Suicide: The AMA’s Latest Quandary

by Shane E. Macaulay, MD

The American Medical Association, and the entire profession of medicine in the U.S., stand at a crucial ethical crossroads. For two years the AMA has been considering the question of physician-assisted suicide (PAS): shall physician assistance with patient suicide now be considered permissible, or shall physicians hold fast to the ethic that a physician’s duty is to “to cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always,” but never to kill?

In 2016, AMA delegates from Oregon brought a resolution to the AMA House of Delegates (HOD), its policy-making body, to request that the AMA consider dropping its longstanding opposition to physician-assisted suicide in favor of a position of neutrality. The AMA’s ethical body, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA), spent 2 years of intensive study of the practice of PAS, gathering information from physicians, ethicists, U.S. states and foreign countries on the practice and implications of PAS, in an exhaustive, open and transparent process. In June of 2018 CEJA offered its report and recommendations to the AMA HOD for its consideration.

The CEJA report included a review of the European experience where PAS began with terminal patients, then progressed to healthy people with depression, then people “tired of life,” people unhappy after sex change operations, and so on. In Europe and now, frighteningly, in Canada, PAS rapidly progressed to active euthanasia (direct physician killing of patients). The CEJA report concluded that the AMA ethical position on PAS should not be changed, that PAS remains “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

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