By Philip Reed
Earlier this year, the American Medical Association voted to uphold its longstanding opposition to physician-assisted suicide. The AMA says 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.”
This is, in fact, the historical position of medicine going back at least to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates – doctors have always held that they should heal their patients and help alleviate their suffering; but it crosses an ethical line to help eliminate the person who suffers.
The AMA’s ethics council studied the issue for three years and recommended that their opposition be maintained (as well as the language of assisted suicide instead of its euphemisms such as “aid-in-dying”). The AMA voted to accept this recommendation by a margin of greater than 70%.
In Oregon and other states where assisted suicide has been legalized, a small number of physicians choose to participate in the practice. The World Medical Association also opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Yet, states recently have chosen to ignore physicians’ ethical position. Already in 2019, New Jersey and Maine have approved physician-assisted suicide laws. New York has similar pending legislation that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised to sign, even though the Medical Society of the State of New York, like the AMA, opposes assisted suicide as unethical.
Assisted suicide is not neutral. When new choices are presented (legitimized by law and organized medicine), it changes the way we think about what choices we have and how we execute those choices. When assisted suicide is legal, terminally ill or disabled patients might be forced to justify their continued existence in a way they never were before. Legalization may also affect choices about the distribution of end-of-life care.
Supposing that one can make a case for legalizing assisted suicide, there is no special reason to involve doctors. Patients turn to doctors for healing and care, which would be counteracted if doctors also offer lethal drugs. Doctors are not trained to bring about a person’s death. Indeed, the AMA’s ethical code also prohibits physician participation in legally authorized executions.
But aren’t doctors supposed to alleviate pain? Yes, they are; and they do such an excellent job that few people who use assisted suicide in states that have legalized it say that they are motivated by concern about inadequate pain control, mentioning instead fears of being a burden and losing autonomy. Doctors can address these fears as well without assisted death.
Medicine is supposed to eliminate pathologies, not introduce them. The exercise of compassion includes a willingness to support a patient in her dying rather than abandon her in her desire to die. New Yorkers should follow the wise counsel of physicians and urge their lawmakers not to give doctors a license to kill.
Philip Reed is professor of philosophy at Canisius College. He specializes in ethics.