Assisted suicide and the American Medical Association

Friday, 14 October 2016

The American Medical Association’s (AMA) House of Delegates adopted a resolution at its June 2016 meeting. The resolution proposes that the AMA reconsider its decades-long opposition to doctor-prescribed suicide and adopt a neutral position.

The House of Delegates will hold an open forum on this topic in November. The AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs will study the proposal and provide a recommendation to its House of Delegates in June 2017.

The opposition of the AMA and state medical associations has been crucial for defeating doctor-prescribed suicide measures. Physicians and other medical professionals—whose mission is healing, not death—are critical in preserving the dignity of human life on this issue. For example, the shift from opposition to “neutrality” by state medical associations in Oregon, Vermont, and California played a key role in the legalization of doctor-prescribed suicide in those states.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is asking physicians and medical professionals, and their organizations, to urge the AMA to maintain its opposition to doctor-prescribed suicide. However, doctor-prescribed suicide should be on everybody’s radar screen as yet another form of the culture of death corrupting the moral fiber and common good of society.

Simply put, doctor-prescribed suicide is a morally unacceptable evil.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “[An] act or omission which of itself or by its intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.” It is the profound duty of every human person and Christian to recognize the sovereignty of God as the “Master of life.” While one may accept their impending death and morally discontinue medical care that is “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome[,]” it violates the natural and divine law to directly will one’s death.

In addition to a morally unacceptable evil, it’s just bad policy. Let me offer just a couple reasons.

First, doctor-prescribed suicide legislation fosters a fractured and hostile attitude toward the value of life and suicide prevention.

On the one hand, society tirelessly works toward suicide prevention. On the other hand, doctor-prescribed suicide undermines these efforts by legally affirming the intentional taking of one’s life as a societal good. Such an ambiguous attitude has consequences, like the increase in the general suicide rate in Oregon where doctor-prescribed suicide has been legal since 1995.

Second, doctor-prescribed suicide legislation cannot adequately draw lines in the sand. Laws always create boundaries, but a boundary is only as strong as the reasoning for it. Doctor-prescribed suicide has at least a couple of easily identifiable, inadequate boundaries.

Doctor-prescribed suicide legislation currently attempts to limit its use to those with terminal illness (that is, diagnosed illness which cannot be adequately cured or treated and is expected to result in the person’s death within six months).

But, it is unclear why this definition of terminal illness must be the standard and why a broader standard could not be adopted. For example, if doctor-prescribed suicide legislation is about people’s pain, what about those who deal with pain for longer periods of time but are never terminal?

Similarly, age restrictions can be easily rewritten. Legislative proposals in Nebraska, for example, have attempted to restrict doctor-prescribed suicide to those who are at least 18 years old. However, Belgium recently rewrote its law to readily include minors. There was even serious discussion in Canada to include “competent” minors as they considered their doctor-prescribed suicide laws.

While attempting to create legal boundaries, the logic of “compassion” (to play off the misused word of its proponents) logically and problematically extends to larger categories of individuals once you accept its initial justifications.

In short, doctor-prescribed suicide is a moral evil and bad policy. As proponents of doctor-prescribed suicide strengthen their renewed efforts to give this flawed legislation the stamp of law, we have a deep obligation to defend the dignity of human life in its last stages.

In a special way, I challenge our Catholic medical professionals to involve themselves on this issue. The stakes are literally life and death. Remain informed. Remain vigilant.