Two Catholic organizations are calling on physicians to urge the American Medical Association to maintain its current stance against physician-assisted suicide.
The call from the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Bioethics Center comes as the AMA's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs gathers information to "outline the current landscape" on physician-assisted suicide.
Representatives of the Catholic organizations are concerned that this effort by the AMA is a first step toward taking a neutral stance on assisted suicide, thus opening the door to such a practice becoming more widely accepted. The organizations are urging physicians to address their concerns during the AMA's interim meeting Nov. 12-15 in Orlando, Florida.
"We are mostly trying to get physicians in particular as well as experts in the area of assisted suicide and palliative care who are most compelling in their arguments against assisted suicide and against the neutrality of the medical association," said Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
"But we also secondarily urge individuals to contact the AMA as well because we're all patients of doctors and we all have a stake in the medical professions not adopting assisted suicide," Schleppenbach told Catholic News Service.
"We need every physician possible who is opposed to assisted suicide to speak up and to encourage other physicians to speak up," he added.
The AMA House of Delegates at the association's annual meeting in June defeated a resolution calling for a study of issues related to assisted suicide in light of legislation in several states that legalized the practice, the AMA said in an email to CNS. The delegates determined instead that more information was needed and referred the issue to the organization's Board of Trustees, the AMA said.
"Responding to delegates' needs for additional information, the board has commissioned the AMA Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) to outline the current landscape surrounding the issue of physician-assisted suicide. In keeping with practice, CEJA will review relevant literature and analyze the related issues. CEJA will report its findings to the House of Delegates at a future date," the email said.
The adoption of a neutral stance on assisted suicide by state medical associations in California, Oregon and Vermont seemed to have played a role in changes in state law in those states governing the practice, Schleppenbach explained.
Assisted suicide also is legal in Washington state. A proposal to legalize it in the District of Columbia is under consideration now by the D.C. Council, and in at least one state, Colorado, a measure to legalize assisted suicide will be on the November ballot.
Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, expressed disappointment in the AMA's discussion of the issue in an email to CNS. He charged that the association "has continued to yield to growing pressures to allow unethical and corruptive practices to enter by the backdoor into the 'standard of care' in medicine and the biosciences."
"The AMA has switched positions on important moral questions at the beginning of life, including the use of human therapeutic cloning in research. Now the group appears poised to further dilute its influence by switching positions on physician-assisted suicide from opposing it to 'being neutral,'" he wrote.
Dr. Bill Toffler, a retired professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, who is Catholic, said there is no such stance as neutrality in the case of assisted suicide.
"If you're neutral on this, then you believe there is some situation where this is necessary. Neutrality is really sought by promoters of assisted suicide because they realize it's saying it's OK. It's a political position that people believe is balanced and neutral when it's not. It's wrong. It's wrong-headed," Toffler told CNS Oct. 12.
He said assisted suicide is often portrayed as "aiding the dying."
"I believe in aiding the dying. We're not talking about that. We're killing the dying," he said of physician-assisted suicide.
Current AMA standards on end-of-life care specifically oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Chapter 5 of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics includes sections addressing assisted suicide and euthanasia.
"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," the code states.
In the section on euthanasia, the code states that "permitting physicians to engage euthanasia would ultimately cause more harm than good." The code also expressed concern that "euthanasia could readily be extended to incompetent patients and other vulnerable populations."
"The involving of physicians in euthanasia heightens the significance of its ethical prohibition. The physician who performs euthanasia assumes unique responsibility for the act of ending the patient's life," it said.
In place of engaging in assisted suicide or euthanasia, the code lists four practices for doctors to follow: not abandoning a patient once it is determined that a cure is impossible, respecting patient autonomy, providing good communication and emotional support and providing appropriate comfort care and adequate pain control.
Physician-assisted suicide recently was addressed by retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a guest opinion that appeared Oct. 7 in The Washington Post. Timed for the archbishop's 85th birthday, the column focused on giving "people dignity in dying," and the Anglican leader said he wanted to be allowed the freedom to determine the circumstances of his death.
"Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth," he wrote. "I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death."
He called the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in California and Canada "promising developments."
Archbishop Tutu first publicly stated his support for physician-assisted suicide in a column in The Guardian, a British newspaper, in July 2014. At the time, he wrote that he did "not want my life to be prolong artificially."