We in the U.S. are not skilled at resolving controversy. We're vulnerable to demonizing those who hold different views on issues that matter a lot to us. Polarizations like "pro life" vs "pro choice" harden into rigid convictions. Physician assisted death (PAD - sometimes referred to as "physician assisted suicide") could fall into the same intractable trap. The American Association of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) teaches us how to approach the issue in a morally mature manner.
With regard to whether it is ethically acceptable for a physician in a state that allows physician assisted death (currently Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and California) to prescribe a potentially lethal medication for a terminally ill patient that the patient can use if he chooses, the AAHPM believes, as I do, that "sincere, compassionate, morally conscientious individuals stand on either side of [the] debate." That's the opposite of demonization. This crucial recognition leads the Association to take what it calls "a position of 'studied neutrality' on the subject of whether PAD should be legally regulated or prohibited."
Physicians who support PAD will be disappointed that the Association does not endorse it. Physicians who oppose PAD will be disappointed that the Association does not oppose it. What the Association chose to do was to tell its members and society itself how patients can best be cared for if and when PAD is legal. Here's the essence of their view, quoted - with slight modification - from the AAHPM policy statement:
- The permissibility of PAD is dependent upon access to excellent palliative care. No patient should be indirectly coerced to hasten his death because he lacks the best possible medical and palliative care.
- Requests for PAD emanate from a patient with full decision-making capacity.
- All reasonable alternatives to PAD have been considered and implemented if acceptable to the patient.
- The request is voluntary. Safeguards should focus in particular on protection of vulnerable groups including the elderly, frail, poor, or physically and/or mentally handicapped. Coercive influences from family or financial pressure from payors cannot be allowed to play any role.
- The practitioner is willing to participate in PAD, never being pressured to act against his own conscience if asked to assist a patient in dying.
- The most essential response to the request for PAD...is to attempt to clearly understand the request, to intensify palliative care treatments with the intent to relieve suffering, and to search with the patient for mutually acceptable approaches without violating any party's fundamental values.
The AAHPM has provided admirable ethical and clinical guidance. "Studied neutrality" reflects moral wisdom, not wishy-washy waffling. AAHPM is doing what a professional association does at its best - offering clear guidance to members, the medical profession as a whole, and to wider society.