American Medical Association retains opposition to assisted suicide

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The House of Delegates of the American Medical Association (AMA) has rebuffed an effort to change the organization’s current stance in opposition to physician-assisted suicide, a development that drew praise from members of the Catholic Medical Association, which advocated against the change. 

According to the CMA, a resolution supporting physician-assisted suicide was proposed at an AMA House of Delegates meeting that took place Nov. 10–14 in National Harbor, Maryland. The resolution would have changed the organization’s stance on the practice from opposed to neutral. Ultimately, delegates voted down the proposal, CMA said. 

The AMA’s current code of ethics states that permitting physicians to engage in assisted suicide — which it defines as a physician providing the means or information for a patient to engage in a life-ending act — would “ultimately cause more harm than good.”

“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. Instead of engaging in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life,” the AMA’s current code reads.

CMA member Timothy Millea, chair of the Health Care Policy Committee and Conscience Rights Protection Task Force, said in a Nov. 14 statement that the “involvement of CMA members nationwide was critical” to voting down the neutrality proposal, along with members of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), who also attended the meeting.

“The combination of online comments, contact with AMA delegates, and in-person testimony at the meeting all contributed to these decisions by the AMA,” Millea stated.

“The CMA is privileged to work alongside our colleagues from CMDA in this and many other efforts. In addition, we greatly appreciate the assistance of the Patients Rights Action Fund (PRAF), a leading voice in the fight against assisted suicide.”

One CMA member who testified at the meeting, Emily Makhlouf, said as reported by CMA: “It is not within the realm of medicine to decide when we enter this world and when we leave it. This is God’s work. In medicine, we try to cure and when cure is not possible, we try to relieve suffering as much as possible. Killing our patients will never be part of the noble pursuit of medicine.”

Assisted suicide is not the same as euthanasia, although the two phrases are often used interchangeably. 

According to the AMA’s current code of ethics, euthanasia necessarily involves “the administration of a lethal agent by another person to a patient,” meaning the person performing the euthanasia (e.g., a medical doctor) is directly responsible for ending the patient’s life. 

Euthanasia remains prohibited throughout the entire U.S. This stands in contrast to Canada, which legalized it in 2016.

In cases of assisted suicide, a doctor or other authorized health care professional is authorized to prescribe the patient a lethal dose of medication, which the patient administers to himself or herself. 

To date, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized assisted suicide, with an additional state — Montana — allowing the practice in theory because of a court ruling. 

There have been attempts in the past to change the AMA’s stance on assisted suicide, such as in 2016 and in 2018, the same year that another major U.S. medical association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, adopted a neutral position on assisted suicide and began lobbying the American Medical Association to do the same. The association has more than 250,000 members in the U.S. including medical doctors, doctors of osteopathic medicine, and medical students.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder” and “gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and the respect due to the living God, his Creator” (No. 2324). This teaching was reaffirmed in the 2020 Vatican document Samaritanus Bonus. Pope Francis has spoken frequently against euthanasia and assisted suicide — calling the practice “false compassion” — and in favor of palliative care. 

Catholic teaching states that patients and doctors are not required to do everything possible to avoid death. If a life has reached its natural conclusion and medical intervention would not be beneficial, the decision to “forego extraordinary or disproportionate means” to keep a dying person alive is not euthanasia, as St. John Paul II noted in Evangelium Vitae.

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