The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American Medical Association to keep reviewing its opposition to assisted death

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

A recommendation that the American Medical Association maintain its opposition to medically assisted death was rejected Monday, with delegates at the AMA's annual meeting in Chicago instead voting for the organization to continue reviewing its guidance on the issue.

Following a debate on whether the nation’s most prominent doctors’ group should revise its Code of Medical Ethics, the House of Delegates voted by a margin of 56 to 44 percent to have the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs keep studying the current guidance. That position, adopted a quarter-century ago, labels the practice “physician-assisted suicide” and calls it “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

The council spent two years reviewing resolutions, not so much on whether to support the practice but on whether to take a neutral stance on what has become a divisive issue among health-care providers. The group’s report sought to find common ground, noting, “Where one physician understands providing the means to hasten death to be an abrogation of the physician’s fundamental role as healer that forecloses any possibility of offering care that respects dignity, another in equally good faith understands supporting a patient’s request for aid in hastening a foreseen death to be an expression of care and compassion.”

Still, the council ultimately recommended that the Code of Medical Ethics “not be amended.”

Even with delegates sending the report back for further discussion, their vote Monday means the AMA’s guidance remains unchanged for now. Andrew Gurman, immediate past president, said in a statement that such discussion would take place at a future policymaking meeting.

The deliberations, he said, “reflected the thoughtful, morally admirable range of views” on the issue.

The reaction of the Patients’ Rights Action Fund was immediate and harsh. Executive Director Matt Vallière called the referral back to the ethics council “a lost opportunity and a failure to stand against a policy that has grave consequences for everyone, but especially persons living with illness, disabilities, or socioeconomic disadvantage. Assisted suicide is not medical care.”

Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized medically assisted death, although California’s law recently was overturned through litigation. Montana allows the practice because of a court ruling.

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