Doctors divided, AMA to continue to study physician aid-in-dying

A physician's stethoscope
Is the American Medical Association softening its opposition to medical aid-in-dying? (Getty/millionsjoker)

With its members arguing for and against physician-assisted dying, the American Medical Association voted yesterday to continue to review its stance on the issue.

A recommendation that the AMA maintain its opposition to medical aid-in-dying was voted down, with delegates at the group’s annual meeting in Chicago voting to continue to review its guidance on the controversial issue.

“Following deliberations by the House of Delegates that reflected the thoughtful, morally admirable range of views on physician-assisted suicide, the existing guidance in the Code of Medical Ethics remains unchanged. Delegates referred the issue for additional information and discussion at a future policy-making meeting,” Andrew Gurman, M.D., immediate past president of the AMA, said in a statement.

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The fact that the AMA rejected a committee’s recommendation to reaffirm the long-standing opposition to medical aid-in-dying was viewed as progress toward a future policy change by one group, Compassion & Choices, which advocates for the rights of terminally ill patients

RELATED: As doctors drop opposition, aid-in-dying advocates target next battleground states

The delegates voted 314-243 to reject a report (PDF) by its Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs that recommended the country’s leading physician group maintain its current code which says that “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.”

In a statement, Compassion & Choices noted that code was adopted 25 years ago in 1993 before medical aid-in-dying was authorized anywhere in the U.S. and hopes the vote reflects a softening of the AMA’s opposition.

“Clearly, the AMA’s position is evolving as delegates hear from more and more colleagues who practice medical aid-in-dying or believe the option should be available to their patients,” said Roger Kligler, M.D., an AMA member and retired internist who is living with stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer and supports medical aid-in-dying. Kligler has filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts asserting that state law allows physicians to assist terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

While the AMA remains opposed to medical aid-in-dying, some of its chapters have dropped their opposition. Last December, the Massachusetts Medical Society became the 10th chapter of the AMA to drop its opposition and take a neutral stance on the issue.

Just as the issue divided AMA delegates, it has its opponents and proponents across the country. The courts are being asked to decide the future of California’s aid-in-dying law. A court ruling suspended the 2016 law that allows terminally ill adults to request lethal medications from their doctors. The law is now in limbo pending an appeal.