The American Medical Association’s decision this week to reconsider its long-standing opposition to assisted suicide doesn’t sit well with some advocates for the disabled.
The AMA voted Monday by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent to continue studying the issue, though without reaffirming that its current policy opposing assisted suicide would remain in place.
That troubles Diane Coleman, who is president and CEO of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group opposed to physician-assisted suicide. Coleman relies on frequent use of a breathing mask because of a neuromuscular disability.
“People like myself feel this pressure when our needs cannot be met, and we would not be able to live for six months without medical help,” Coleman told The Daily Signal. “As a result, it could feel like the only way to deal with unmet health care needs is to die. So it becomes a duty to die, not a choice.”
The American Medical Association’s current policy on assisted suicide is that “permitting physicians to engage in assisted suicide would ultimately cause more harm than good” and that “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.”
In response to the AMA decision to revisit its policy on physician-assisted suicide, Coleman teamed up with Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, to argue in favor of maintaining existing policy.
They issued a press release explaining what they fear would be the detrimental effects that would follow if the AMA reverses its policy, and submitted two formal statements to the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.
“We hoped the AMA’s policy would be settled,” Coleman said. “From our point of view, the existing policy is the correct policy, and if you look around the country, the medical community has a lot of opposition to the AMA’s decision.”
The AMA’s move came less than a week after fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain committed suicide within three days of one another.
Coleman says that the idea of taking a neutral stance on physician-assisted suicide has been bubbling among some AMA members for two years.
Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, says that physician-assisted suicide has changed the culture in which medicine is practiced.
Anderson said assisted suicide reduces the trust patients have in their doctors for preserving their lives and provides “perverse incentives” for insurers, as well as for public and private health care organizations.
“Physician-assisted suicide offers a cheap, quick fix in a world of increasingly scarce health care resources,” Anderson said. “It corrupts the profession of medicine by permitting the tools of healing to be used as techniques for killing.”
Anderson said he is concerned by the potential of the AMA’s easing its policy of opposition, or even replacing it with one in favor of the practice.
In their press release, Coleman and Golden said: “If insurers deny, or even merely delay, expensive life-saving treatment, the person will be steered toward assisted suicide. Will insurers do the right thing, or the cheap thing?”
Critics of assisted suicide also say they worry about the lack of sufficient guardrails.
“There is a sense of no questions being asked—or even a counseling option,” Coleman told The Daily Signal. “There are no independent witnesses required when lethal drugs are ingested, and no one to protect the elderly when their families want to use physician-assisted suicide for them.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the nature of Coleman’s medical issues and other details about her personal situation. The characterization of the mask Coleman uses has been updated for clarification. Two quotes have been changed, one to correct a term about how lethal drugs are taken, and another to clarify when Coleman sees it as becoming a “duty to die.”