Thoughtful, morally admirable individuals hold diverging, yet equally deeply held and well-considered perspectives about physician-assisted suicide. Nonetheless, at the core of public and professional debate about physician-assisted suicide is the aspiration that every patient come to the end of life as free as possible from suffering that does not serve the patient’s deepest self-defining beliefs. Supporters and opponents share a fundamental commitment to values of care, compassion, respect, and dignity; they diverge in drawing different moral conclusions from those underlying values in equally good faith.
Guidance in the AMA Code of Medical Ethics encompasses the irreducible moral tension at stake for physicians with respect to participating in assisted suicide. Opinion E-5.7 powerfully expresses the perspective of those who oppose physician-assisted suicide. Opinion 1.1.7 articulates the thoughtful moral basis for those who support assisted suicide.
Physician-assisted suicide occurs when a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act (e.g., the physician provides sleeping pills and information about the lethal dose, while aware that the patient may commit suicide).
It is understandable, though tragic, that some patients in extreme duress—such as those suffering from a terminal, painful, debilitating illness—may come to decide that death is preferable to life. However, permitting physicians to engage in assisted suicide would ultimately cause more harm than good.
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.
Instead of engaging in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. Physicians:
- Should not abandon a patient once it is determined that cure is impossible.
- Must respect patient autonomy.
- Must provide good communication and emotional support.
- Must provide appropriate comfort care and adequate pain control.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, VI
Physicians are expected to uphold the ethical norms of their profession, including fidelity to patients and respect for patient self-determination. Yet physicians are not defined solely by their profession. They are moral agents in their own right and, like their patients, are informed by and committed to diverse cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions and beliefs. For some physicians, their professional calling is imbued with their foundational beliefs as persons, and at times the expectation that physicians will put patients’ needs and preferences first may be in tension with the need to sustain moral integrity and continuity across both personal and professional life.
Preserving opportunity for physicians to act (or to refrain from acting) in accordance with the dictates of conscience in their professional practice is important for preserving the integrity of the medical profession as well as the integrity of the individual physician, on which patients and the public rely. Thus physicians should have considerable latitude to practice in accord with well-considered, deeply held beliefs that are central to their self-identities.
Physicians’ freedom to act according to conscience is not unlimited, however. Physicians are expected to provide care in emergencies, honor patients’ informed decisions to refuse life-sustaining treatment, and respect basic civil liberties and not discriminate against individuals in deciding whether to enter into a professional relationship with a new patient.
In other circumstances, physicians may be able to act (or refrain from acting) in accordance with the dictates of their conscience without violating their professional obligations. Several factors impinge on the decision to act according to conscience. Physicians have stronger obligations to patients with whom they have a patient-physician relationship, especially one of long standing; when there is imminent risk of foreseeable harm to the patient or delay in access to treatment would significantly adversely affect the patient’s physical or emotional well-being; and when the patient is not reasonably able to access needed treatment from another qualified physician.
In following conscience, physicians should:
- Thoughtfully consider whether and how significantly an action (or declining to act) will undermine the physician’s personal integrity, create emotional or moral distress for the physician, or compromise the physician’s ability to provide care for the individual and other patients.
- Before entering into a patient-physician relationship, make clear any specific interventions or services the physician cannot in good conscience provide because they are contrary to the physician’s deeply held personal beliefs, focusing on interventions or services a patient might otherwise reasonably expect the practice to offer.
- Take care that their actions do not discriminate against or unduly burden individual patients or populations of patients and do not adversely affect patient or public trust.
- Be mindful of the burden their actions may place on fellow professionals.
- Uphold standards of informed consent and inform the patient about all relevant options for treatment, including options to which the physician morally objects.
- In general, physicians should refer a patient to another physician or institution to provide treatment the physician declines to offer. When a deeply held, well-considered personal belief leads a physician also to decline to refer, the physician should offer impartial guidance to patients about how to inform themselves regarding access to desired services.
- Continue to provide other ongoing care for the patient or formally terminate the patient-physician relationship in keeping with ethics guidance.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, II, IV, VI, VIII, IX
Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.