More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Medical group voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide

Wednesday, August 8, 2001

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The nation's second-largest medical organization is coming out for the first time to officially oppose physician-assisted suicide, saying that doctors should instead be looking for ways to improve care for the dying.

"We must solve the problems of inadequate care at the end of life, not avoid them through practices such as assisted suicide," said Dr. Daniel Sulmasy of the American College of Physicians, an author of the paper appearing in Tuesday's issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Providing more and better palliative care, controlling pain and treating depression more aggressively, and increasing access to hospice care are essential to help terminally ill patients die more comfortably and to quell the demand for assisted suicide, the paper states.

"Physician-assisted suicide should not become standard medical care," the position paper states.

The ramifications would damage the patient-physician relationship, jeopardize the medical profession's role of healing, and lessen the value placed on life, especially of the disabled and vulnerable, the paper states.

However, the College of Physicians emphasized its strong support for a patient's right to refuse or halt medical treatment.

The paper puts the American College of Physicians in consensus with the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, The American Geriatrics Society and a host of other medical and religious groups.

One needs only to "take a look at Dr. (Jack) Kevorkian's victims" to see that physician-assistant suicide should not be an option, said AMA president Dr. Richard F. Corlin.

"You see not just people in the last stages of a terminal illness; you see people who are suffering from chronic depression, people with arthritis, multiple sclerosis," he said. "They're in pain (but) would clearly benefit from the better use of pain medications, the better use of psychological support and the involvement of family in their care."

A spokeswoman for a right-to-die lobbying group contended that most people - doctors included - support assisted suicide but many are afraid to say so publicly.

"It's likely that as baby boomers get closer to the end of their lives - and watch as their parents are being kept alive by machines and suffering unbearable pain or indignity - they will seek a more positive outcome for the end of their own lives," said Jane Ruvelson of the Death with Dignity National Center.

Sulmasy called the argument "a false dichotomy."

"People are afraid they have to die strapped to a machine or go to Oregon for pills (to commit suicide)," he said, referring to that state's law permitting doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. "Patients need better access to palliative care and physicians who are willing and skilled and able to provide that care."

The College of Physicians' position comes years after some other groups took official stances on the subject - the AMA did so in 1993, for example - and after years of "very careful deliberation and serious discussion," Sulmasy said.

"I think that most surveys have shown that one-third of physicians are in favor of assisted suicide, one-third are opposed and one-third are unsure," he said. In the absence of a "clear consensus," medical organizations have taken the most conservative stance, he said.

On the Net:

Annals of Internal Medicine,

American Medical Association,

Death with Dignity National Center,

Copyright ©2001 Observer Publishing Co.