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Suicide Prevention Association Concludes Medical Aid in Dying is Not Suicide

Urges an End to the Term “Physician-Assisted Suicide” to Describe Medical Aid in Dying Photo: Barbara Coombs Lee, president, Compassion & Choices

Compassion & Choices praised a suicide prevention, medical research association for issuing a statement Thursday concluding medical aid in dying “is distinct from the behavior that has been traditionally and ordinarily described as ‘suicide.’”

“In suicide, a life that could have continued indefinitely is cut short,” said Colleen Creighton, executive director of The American Association of Suicidology, AAS, whose membership includes mental health and public health professionals. “PAD [physician aid in dying] is not a matter of life or death; it is a matter of a foreseeable death occurring a little sooner but in an easier way, in accord with the patient’s wishes and values, vs. death later in a potentially more painful and protracted manner. In PAD, the person with a terminal illness does not necessarily want to die; he or she typically wants desperately to live but cannot do so; the disease will take its course.”

Medical aid in dying is an option for mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to peacefully end their suffering if it becomes unbearable in the District of Columbia and six states: California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. These jurisdictions have a combined 40-year track record with no evidence of misuse of this practice. In addition, the specific statutes in the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington stipulate that: “Actions taken in accordance with [the Act] shall not, for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide…

“The American Association of Suicidology is dedicated to preventing suicide, but this has no bearing on the reflective, anticipated death a physician may legally help a dying patient facilitate, whether called…physician-assisted dying, or medical aid in dying,” concluded Creighton. “In fact, we believe that the term ‘physician-assisted suicide’ constitutes a critical reason why these distinct death categories are so often conflated, and should be deleted from use.”

The AAS statement is timely because last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill (HR 3354) with an amendment that would repeal D.C.’s medical aid-in-dying law. Twelve days later, some House members introduced a concurrent resolution (H.Con.Res.80) condemning medical aid in dying as ‘assisted suicide.’

“The AAS announcement should deter members of Congress from trying to deprive terminally ill Americans of the compassionate option of medical aid in dying when no other medical option can provide relief from intolerable suffering,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, an ER and ICU nurse for 25 years and coauthor of the nation’s first medical aid-in-dying law in Oregon in 1994. “Numerous other health and medical groups concur with the AAS’s conclusion. Both federal and state lawmakers should defer to their expertise on this medical issue.”

In fact, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, The American College of Legal Medicine, American Medical Women’s Association, American Medical Student Association, and American Public Health Association have adopted similar policies opposing the use of the terms ‘suicide’ and ‘assisted suicide’ to describe the medical practice of aid in dying.

“Medical aid-in-dying laws enable the relatively few people who choose this option to peacefully die in their sleep,” said Kim Callinan, chief program officer for Compassion & Choices. “These laws also spur terminally ill people to discuss with their loved ones and doctors and better use all their end of life options, including hospice and palliative care.”

Numerous polls show strong support for medical aid in dying among both U.S. physicians and Americans across the ethnic, political and religious spectrum.