By a nearly two-thirds margin, AMA votes to retain opposition to assisted suicide

By Jennifer Popik, J.D., Director, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

Editor’s note. Our look back to a story that appeared one year ago today is a reminder that the pro-assisted suicide movement is aided immeasurably when medical associations go “neutral.” Thankfully, this did NOT happen with the American Medical Association on June 10, 2019.

Earlier today, the American Medical Association affirmed the recommendation of its Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs that the influential AMA remain opposed to assisted suicide.

What made the victory even sweeter was the margin– an overwhelming 65% in favor to 35% opposed.

After many years of hard and detailed work examining the dangerous trends and effects of legalizing assisted suicide, a year ago the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) issued a report to the full AMA to maintain their opposition position to assisted suicide.

In June 2018, proponents of assisted suicide celebrated the decision by AMA’s House of Delegates not to accept the CEJA’s recommendation to maintain the AMA’s firm opposition to physician-assisted suicide is a setback and to continue “studying” the issue. The battle would be fought again in 2019.

According to those familiar with the vote and preliminaries, over 20 medical students, interns, and residents provided testimony at yesterday’s Reference Committee meeting. Additionally, numerous other physicians testified at Reference Committee.

The importance of AMA’s posture on assisted suicide would be difficult to exaggerate. In state fight after state fight, the opposition of the AMA and its state affiliates has been critical in fighting the passage of assisted suicide. This victory at the AMA is critical due to the flood of assisted suicide legislation in the states.

The current language, which the AMA has now affirmed, reads

“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.”

Much of the battle, as the CEJA report (two years in the making) suggested was over language. The CEJA report reached two main conclusions:

  1. The AMA Code of Ethics should not be amended, effectively sustaining the AMA’s position that physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.
  2. With respect to prescribing lethal medication, the term “physician assisted suicide” describes the practice with the greatest precision.

Regarding the latter, he report noted, “Not surprisingly, the terms stakeholders use to refer [to] the practice of physicians prescribing lethal medication to be self-administered by patients in many ways reflect the different ethical perspectives that inform ongoing societal debate.”

Proponents of change favor the euphemisms “death with dignity” or “medical aid in dying.”

Of course the battle goes on.

Where legal, there have been documented abuses under these laws. In many states, there is a real risk that assisted suicide will expand to apply to the incompetent. Further, should the number of states legalizing assisted suicide continue to grow, the U.S. Supreme Court may readdress euthanasia as a constitutional right.

Thanks to the strong effort of committed medical professionals, the AMA retains its long-standing practice against assisted suicide.