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AMA Praised for Action Leading to Study of Aid in Dying

Ethics Council to Study Existing Ethical Opinion and Report Back to AMA Policy-Making Body Photo: Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee

Compassion & Choices praised the American Medical Association (AMA) for considering a resolution that will lead to a study of aid in dying as an option for terminally ill adults. The AMA House of Delegates voted on Monday to refer Resolution 015 – Study aid-in-dying as end-of-life option – to the AMA Board of Trustees in light of the continuing evolution of thinking in this area.

In keeping with the decision to refer Resolution 015, it is anticipated that the AMA Board of Trustees will ask the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) to examine AMA ethical policy prohibiting physician participation in assisted suicide (Opinion E-2.211). In keeping with Council practice, CEJA will review relevant literature and data, and deliberate whether current AMA ethical policy should be reaffirmed or amended in a manner yet to be determined. CEJA will report the results of its deliberations to the House of Delegates at a future date.

The expected study will be notable because the AMA has opposed physician-assisted suicide since 1993, and it follows the California Medical Association (CMA) dropping its 28-year opposition to medical aid in dying and adopting a neutral stance on the issue last year. The CMA position change facilitated the enactment of California’s End of Life Option Act that took effect last Thursday, tripling the percentage of terminally ill Americans who have the option to choose medical aid in dying from 4 to 16 percent.

“We thank the AMA for responding to physician and public sentiment to reexamine its position on medical aid in dying,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, an attorney who was an ER and ICU nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before she coauthored the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. “National polls show the vast majority of American doctors and their patients support medical aid in dying because they want this option to avoid unbearable suffering at the end of life.”

In addition to California, four other states authorize the option of medical aid in dying: Oregon (since 1997), Washington (since 2008), Montana (since 2009) and Vermont (since 2013).

“Oregon’s experience with our Death with Dignity Act shows terminally ill adults benefit from the law regardless if they decide to utilize medical aid in dying or not,” said Dr. Glenn Gordon, a retired surgeon, former advisory board member of Compassion & Choices of Oregon and alternate delegate for the Oregon Medical Association, who initiated the resolution. “It has encouraged earlier conversations about end-of-life care, as well as better and more frequent use of hospice and palliative care. Hospice care has improved markedly in the past couple of decades and works cooperatively when patients request the option of medical aid in dying.”

After open hearings on Resolution 015, a reference committee of the House of Delegates concluded:

“Support for this resolution was largely in favor of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs studying the issue of medical aid-in-dying. The testimony spoke to the fact that many states have proposed or adopted legislation to legalize the practice, introducing a potential conflict for our members in those states. Additional testimony recognized the need for our American Medical Association to respond to this highly relevant and expanding issue that may impact medical practice, looking to the Council for guidance. With these considerations in mind your Reference Committee recommends that Resolution 015 be referred.”

The House of Delegates adopted by acclamation the reference committee’s recommendation to refer Resolution 15.