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AMA affirms its opposition to doctor-assisted suicide

Doctors

June 26, 1996
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EDT

From Reporter Lisa Price

CHICAGO (CNN) -- The American Medical Association, the world's leading medical organization, made clear Tuesday that it remains firmly opposed to physician-assisted suicide. At its annual meeting in Chicago, the AMA voted against loosening its stance on the procedure.

Instead, the AMA said it would seek to better educate doctors on alleviating the pain and suffering of dying patients.

Kevorkian

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide say the medical community knows that many doctors are helping their terminally ill patients take their own lives. Although Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the poster boy for the assisted suicide movement, has been ostracized by the mainstream medical community, neither he nor those who agree with him have given up the cause. Kevorkian allegedly assisted this month in the suicide of the 31st person to die in his presence.

Yet in Chicago, few AMA physicians were willing to discuss the issue. "Most delegates would hesitate to support the strongly worded report condemning physician-assisted suicide for fear of becoming tainted with the same brush the board has used on Jack Kevorkian," said Dr. Ulrich Danckers, an AMA delegate.

"Many doctors do it quietly but they don't talk about it publicly," Danckers later told reporters. "It's only a matter of drawing a little more (pain-killing drug) into the syringe."

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A doctor firmly opposed to helping patients commit suicide said, "We're talking about preserving and protecting life, not ending it." Another: "The end simply does not justify the means."

The end did justify the means in the view of Merian Frederick, who died in Kevorkian's presence in 1993. Her daughter Carole Ponisch says Frederick was grateful to Kevorkian for ending the pain caused by Lou Gehrig's disease. And she was in control of the procedure, as was evident in a home video her family kept of her October 12, 1993, suicide. (1M QuickTime movie)

Ponisch says if guidelines had been set up to facilitate the procedure, the suicide could have been done "above the table, not below."

Despite her arguments and those of other people with terminally ill relatives, not to mention recent court decisions suggesting a greater legal tolerance toward physician-assisted suicide, the AMA voted strongly against adopting even a position of neutrality on the subject.

"They have to take a position against physician-assisted suicide," said Lainie Ross, an ethicist at the University of Chicago. "I think a neutral position doesn't really exist. You are either accepting that physicians are helping patients die, or not."

And for now, the American Medical Association pledges that it will not.

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