Statement of Patients' Rights Action Fund Regarding World Medical Association Recently Adopted International Code of Medical Ethics: Conscientious Objection

The Patients’ Rights Action Fund applauds the WMA’s recently adopted policy preserving physicians’ right to not participate in assisted suicide, thereby preserving patient choice to receive care from someone who would not help them kill themselves in a dark moment.

In its recently completed meeting, the World Medical Association reviewed its International Code of Medical Ethics. Among the many items for review was a section on the exercise of conscientious objection by physicians regarding medical referrals. On the assisted suicide front, this a very important subject for both patient and physician. Referral by physicians is not an unusual action, but forced referral for suicide is a bridge too far.

PRAF is pleased that the WMA rejected attempts to require effective referral of patients for assisted suicide, which would have subverted longstanding protections for conscientious objection. The WMA position is in line with the American Medical Association. And while this draft will be debated and voted on the WMA’s General Assembly in Berlin in the fall, this decision is a strong indication of the position of a majority of WMA membership.

When it comes to referral, no situation that a physician may face is more critical to this challenge than that of assisted suicide. While only legal in 9 states and the District of Columbia, proponents continue to push legislatures and courts to allow assisted suicide insisting it nothing more than another medical procedure. Many doctors oppose assisted suicide, as do most medical associations, and see it in opposition to their role as healer and commitment to “do no harm.” Obligatory referral puts physicians in the position of violating going against what they believe is best for their patients and creates a situation of serious risk of harm and mistreatment, undermining the very purpose for which the international code of medical ethics was developed. Patients are thereby given less choice, because medical professionals may help them kill themselves in a dark moment, their lives will be seen as less worth living due to disability, and they may not receive equal suicide prevention care and services.
The Patients’ Rights Action Fund gives huge thanks to Drs. Dan Sulmasy, Jeff White, Ewan Goligher, Rene Leiva, Tom Sullivan, Marie-Alberte Boursiquot, Ramona Coelho, Shirley Reddoch, Jeffrey Barrows and Tim Millea for their extensive work on this issue. Their dedication and efforts now protect the medical profession and their own medical practices from the encroachment of efforts to force physicians to participate in the assisted suicides of vulnerable people.

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