American Medical Association Weighs Whether to Change Stance on Assisted Suicide

June 11, 2018

Although medically assisted death has gained ground in this country — with six states and the District of Columbia legalizing the practice — it remains a divisive issue among health-care providers. The American Medical Association, the nation's most prominent doctors' group, has maintained the same guidance for the past quarter-century: “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

Yet this week in Chicago, the AMA House of Delegates will debate and vote on whether the association's Code of Medical Ethics should be revised.

“The mere fact that they're considering it again tells you that it's a changing climate,” said Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics and head of the division of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine. “The reality is there are many more doctors in the AMA, but also outside the AMA, who have changed their minds about this.” And opinions, he predicted, will “continue to evolve.”

The AMA's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs spent two years reviewing resolutions, not so much on whether to support the practice but on whether to take a neutral stance. The council is recommending that the Code of Medical Ethics “not be amended” and continue to refer to “physician-assisted suicide,” saying that language still “describes the practice with the greatest precision.” The delegates could accept the recommendation or send it back for further review.

It's uncertain which way the vote will go, but in an open forum on the AMA's website, doctors, delegates and others showed strong support for the status quo. That position is increasingly at odds with public opinion, with polls showing many Americans saying doctors should be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The AMA declined to comment before the meeting.

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