Nation

American Medical Association to reconsider policy against assisted suicide

WASHINGTON — American Medical Association delegates meet in Chicago this week to vote on whether the group’s Code of Medical Ethics should allow assisted suicide.

Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized the practice, but it remains divisive. The AMA has had the same guidance for a 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.’’

But ethics experts say views are evolving. ‘‘The mere fact that they’re considering it again tells you that it’s a changing climate,’’ said Art Caplan, head of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.

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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.

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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.

The AMA declined to comment before the meeting.

On one side, doctors argue that physician-assisted death should be a choice for patients who are already dying and want to end their suffering on their own terms. Those on the opposing side contend that such assistance violates one of the core principles of their profession — do no harm — and could become a slippery slope to euthanasia. There’s even disagreement about how to characterize the practice. Opponents say terms such as “aid in dying” are euphemisms that obscure the harsh reality, while proponents see “doctor-assisted suicide” as stigmatizing patients who choose it.

“This is not just a medical issue,” said cardiologist Thomas Sullivan, an AMA delegate from Massachusetts who agrees with the recommendation for no change. “This is a social issue. This is a moral issue. This is something that many, many people are faced with from time to time, when your own parents or your own children or your brother or sister or you are faced with a terminal illness.”