By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
Editor’s note. My family and I will be on vacation through September 6. I will occasionally add new items but for the most part we will repost “the best of the best” — the stories our readers have told us they especially liked over the last five months. This first ran August 18.
There is an effort currently underway within the American Medical Association (AMA) to abandon its long-standing position opposing assisted suicide and take a neutral stance. Assisting suicide is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and California, and the practice may have some legal protection in the state of Montana.
Why is that important? Both the national and state medical societies’ opposition to doctor-prescribed suicide have been instrumental in stopping the spread of these dangerous laws. In fact, when the Vermont and California medical societies took neutral positions, it was devastating to the efforts in the legislature to block legalization.
Following the national annual AMA meeting several weeks ago, its Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs was instructed to “study aid-in-dying as an end-of-life option.” Moreover, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs has been directed to develop a recommendation “regarding the AMA taking a neutral stance on physician aid-in-dying.”
The Council is only slated to talk with physicians who have participated in suicides. This sets the stage for a full debate on doctor-prescribed suicide by the AMA House of Delegates next summer. Absent a grassroots groundswell from within its ranks, it seems likely that the AMA will move from opposition to adopting a neutral stance.
The stakes could not be any higher.
While, as noted, four states have affirmatively legalized the dangerous practice of doctor-prescribed suicide, and legislative efforts continue to expand that number, an even greater threat may be posed by the United States Supreme Court. We are in a situation, with the current Supreme Court vacancy, under which whoever gets to appoint the new justice can definitively shift the High Court’s ideological balance.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg, unanimously rejected the claim that there was a constitutional “right” to assist suicide. But many of the concurring justices suggested they agreed only because there was not yet enough evidence to show that states could not rationally fear abuses.
Moreover, in one concurring opinion in Glucksberg, then-Justice John Paul Stevens made a point of saying that he did not intend to “foreclose the possibility that an individual plaintiff seeking to hasten her death, or a doctor whose assistance was sought, could prevail in a more particularized challenge.”
If more states join the ranks of those allowing the dangerous practice of doctor-assisting suicide (Supreme Court Justices have indicated that they like to look at trends), it increases the likelihood of decisions that emulated the Supreme Court of Canada. You’ll recall the Canadian high court not only declared doctor-prescribed suicide a constitutional right but also authorized “surrogates” to “choose” euthanasia for patients who are not mentally capable of making health care decision, like children born with disabilities or those with Alzheimer’s disease.
So while you might not live in one of the states where doctor-prescribed suicide is legal, if more states join the ranks of California, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont—and above all if 2016 sees the election of a president and Senate likely to use the next Supreme Court vacancy to nominate and confirm a justice sympathetic to euthanasia–there is the real risk the U.S. Supreme Court might well follow the Supreme Court of Canada recent decision holding there is a federal constitutional right to assist suicide.
And should the AMA end its strong and influential opposition to the dangerous practice, we can expect many more states will face fierce legalization battles. We will all be at risk.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called assisting suicide “an appropriate right to have.” In her first campaign question on the issue in a town hall in February, Politico reported “…she said, ‘It is a crucial issue that people deserve to understand from their own ethical, religious and faith-based perspectives.’ Clinton added that she wants to examine what other countries, like the Netherlands, have experienced after enacting laws.”
With the composition of the Supreme Court in the balance, it is more urgent now than ever before to raise awareness and fight back on this important issue. We must tell both the AMA and our elected officials that killing the patient must never be condoned as a reasonable “solution” to human problems!
It is important to try and persuade any physicians you might know belonging to the AMA to make their opinion opposing assisted suicide known.
You may also Contact the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs with your opinion against assisted suicide:
Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs
American Medical Association
330 North Wabash Avenue, Ste. 39300
Chicago, IL 60611-5885
Editor’s note. This appeared in the August digital edition of National Right to Life News. You can read all the many news stories, commentaries, opinion pieces, and editorials at www.nrlc.org/uploads/NRLNews/NRLNewsAugust2016.pdf
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