STEUBENVILLE, OHIO — Euthanasia opponents see a position paper issued by a prominent doctors group as a worrisome new tactic for physician-assisted suicide.
The physicians claim that they are merely trying to serve their patients in the best way possible.
“The real point to these moves is a tremendous push to transform the crime of physician-assisted suicide to a treatment,” said Rita Marker, executive director of the Ohio-based International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
The moves Marker refers to are enunciated in the February paper from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), the largest organization of palliative care physicians in the nation, with 2,600 members.
The academy’s board of directors has renamed the process physician-assisted death (PAD), saying suicide is “the more emotionally charged designation.” The group took a position of “studied neutrality” on the issue of legalizing the measure.
Marker calls suicide a descriptive term rather than an emotional one, but admits that the word evokes what she called “a visceral reaction” and that it is one reason bills in various statehouses have failed in the past.
Compassion and Choices is heir to the Hemlock Society and the biggest right-to-die organization in the United States. Marker suspects that it realized that the word suicide made a difference to voters, as bills legalizing assisted suicide were defeated in Hawaii, Wisconsin and Arizona this year and in other states recently, so they went lobbying.
“Officials of Compassion and Choices met with the board of the American Academy and spoke about it,” she said.
The executive vice president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine denied that any group had any influence on the board’s decision.
“When we took a vote on it, our membership was split almost right down the middle. We were certainly not influenced by [advocacy groups’] concerns,” said Dr. C. Porter Storey, a Catholic whose practice is in Boulder, Colo.
Storey has been director of a hospice for 20 years.
As far as changing the wording from physician-assisted suicide to physician-assisted death, Storey said that the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine was only updating terminology.
“We were trying to speak to the language that is used today. We all know what we’re talking about, a prescription for pills large enough to kill someone if you took them all at one time,” Storey said.
Since a bill is pending in California, the change in wording could have an impact.
The California “Compassionate Choices” bill went into committee in March. Vermont bill H-44 to allow assisted suicide was defeated by the state's House of Representatives March 21.
The option of legalizing assisted suicide is expected to go on the ballot as a voter initiative in Washington next year.
Right-to-die advocates are energized by recent developments. Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the best-selling book Final Exit, said: “The pendulum is beginning to swing our way.”
Pro-lifers see the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine’s neutral stance, which replaced a 1991 position paper that opposed legalizing physician-assisted suicide, as its engagement in a war of words with serious potential consequences.
“It’s a clever way to get around coming out in favor of it,” said Ione Whitlock, chief research associate of LifeTree. “Is palliative care becoming just another vehicle for assisted suicide? That’s the concern.”
Storey, of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, said that the group of doctors settled on the “studied neutrality” wording in their position paper because of their concern for the consciences of their members: “We were very careful not to put physicians in a position where they might be called on to do something that they feel is wrong. What we can all agree on is that when patients are this desperate, they need help.”
He did declare that he personally would never assist someone to kill himself, even if it were legal.
Palliative care is treatment that is more concerned with relief of pain than curative medicine. Hospice programs are those that provide comfort care for terminally ill patients and their families.
One is Catholic Hospice, serving Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in Florida and a joint venture of the Archdiocese of Miami and Mercy Hospital. Catholic Hospice’s website statement is decidedly not neutral: “One should never ask for or demand assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing. This is not only wrong for the [patient], but it also does a serious injustice to physicians, family and medical personnel to whom such immoral demands are made.”
That sums up the position of the Catholic Church on physician-assisted suicide or physician-assisted death, no matter the terminology used.
Paul A. Barra is based in
Reidville, South Carolina.