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PHYSICIANS: LEAVE ASSISTED SUICIDE TO DOCTORS, PATIENTS

The following story is published in ther American Medical News

June 4, 2001

PHYSICIANS: LEAVE ASSISTED SUICIDE TO DOCTORS, PATIENTS

While AMA delegates and rank-and-file physicians differ on whether assisted suicide should be legal, a sizable group would like government to stay out of it.

By Tanya Albert, AMNews staff. June 4, 2001

U.S. doctors favor legalizing physician-assisted suicide at nearly twice the rate of members of the AMA House of Delegates, according to a new study from Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

In the first nationwide survey of its kind, 44.5% of rank-and-file physicians said doctor-assisted suicide should probably or definitely be legal. Only 23.5% of AMA delegates said they favored it, according to the study published in the May edition of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The gap was wider than the study’s lead author, Simon N. Whitney, MD, expected. But he said it reflects a divided membership, and it doesn’t mean the AMA’s stance is wrong.

“Rank-and-file doctors are practical people who want more tools to work with. They want more options for patients,” said Dr. Whitney, a family and community medicine professor at Baylor. “The leadership of the AMA is concerned about the profession as a whole and the implications down the road of what happens if it is legalized.”

Thomas R. Reardon, MD, AMA immediate past president and a general practitioner from Portland, Ore., said members of the organization are indeed concerned about those implications. “Once you begin making this available, it’s a slippery slope,” he said. “Is it OK to say if I have six months to live, it’s [assisted suicide] OK. What about a year to live?”

Dr. Reardon said education is the key to helping physicians and patients see that physician-assisted suicide doesn’t need to be an option. Pain and depression are two reasons commonly cited for patients wanting to end their lives when they’re facing grave illnesses, he said. Both are treatable.

“Physicians should be healers, they should meet their patients needs,” Dr. Reardon said. “They shouldn’t be asked to kill patients.”

It comes down to religion, politics

According to the study, ethnicity, geographic location, specialty, age and time spent with terminally ill patients didn’t have a significant effect on how the 658 physicians who took part in the survey felt about physician-assisted suicide.

Only political orientation and religion seemed to be indicators of how a physician might feel about the issue.

Physicians who said they were politically conservative were more likely to oppose physician-assisted suicide, according to the Baylor study.

About 47% of politically conservative doctors opposed doctor-assisted suicide, compared with 19% of politically liberal physicians who opposed it.

When it came to religion, 45% of Catholic physicians opposed physician-assisted suicide, 32% of Protestant physicians opposed it and 16% of Jewish physicians opposed it.

Also, those who said that religion was “very important” were far more likely to oppose legalizing physician-assisted suicide — 55% of them — than doctors who said religion was “not at all important,” 18%.

“For some it was a moral issue, for others it was a practical issue,” Dr. Whitney said.

Despite differences in the groups surveyed, there were similarities.

Whether a doctor was an AMA delegate or not, they were most likely to believe that any decision on assisted suicide should be between physician and patient, rather than dictated by law or medical profession guidelines.

About 31% of the physicians surveyed said there should be no law regarding physician-assisted suicide and that the decision should be left up to the physician-patient relationship.

The second largest group among U.S. physicians, 24%, said there should be no law and that the medical profession should provide guidelines on the issue.

Among AMA delegates, 38% said there should be no law and that the decision should be left to the physician and the patient. “They are still very respectful of the physician-patient relationship,” Dr. Whitney said.

Thomas A. Preston, MD, a Seattle cardiologist, said his views are most in line with the large group of doctors who say the decision should be made as part of the physician-patient relationship.

“However a physician feels about this, let people decide on their own,” Dr. Preston said. “Laws complicate things.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Survey says Rank-and-file U.S. physicians are more likely to support physician-assisted suicide than AMA delegates, but the largest percentage in both groups believe the decision should be left to the physician-patient relationship. The proportion that agreed that there should be:

U.S. doctors

AMA delegates

——- ———

A law allowingphysician-assisted suicide : U.S. doctors 22%; AMA delegates 9%

A law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide: U.S. doctors 17%; AMA delegates 28%

No law, leave it to the physician-patient relationship: U.S. doctors 31%; AMA delegates 38%

No law, let medical profession provide guidelines: U.S. doctors 24%; AMA delegates20%

No answer or unsure: U.S. doctors 7%; AMA delegates 5%

Source: “Views of United States Physicians and Members of the American Medical Association House of Delegates on Physician-assisted Suicide,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, May.

Note: Number total may not equal 100% because of rounding.

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