Tell AMA: Doctor-Assisted Killing Incompatible with Medical Ethics

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Prof. William Wagner

WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at SAU

The American Medical Association (AMA) ought not play god. I therefore called on the AMA this week to not change its position on physician-assisted suicide. Currently the group properly holds the practice incompatible with medical ethics.

The Hippocratic Oath and Doctor-Assisted Killing

The Hippocratic Oath declares, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” In keeping with that fundamental principle of medicine, the AMA previously said: “the ethical prohibition against physician-assisted suicide is a cornerstone of medical ethics. . . .” More than 40 other national and state medical and health care organizations quite properly joined that position in the past.

Nothing changed since the AMA last  “reexamined and reaffirmed” that “physician-assisted suicide remains ‘fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer…'”  The AMA also acknowledged the impossibility of controlling the dark practice that poses “serious societal risks….” These facts remain true. Truth does not change.

The Sacredness of Human Life

God creates people in His image. Every life, therefore, is sacred.  The AMA’s proposed policy change rejects this inviolable standard. It seeks to replace it with a morally relative mushiness, where each doctor chooses when and whether a human life has value. Allowing doctors to kill flows from an erroneous premise that human life in certain conditions has no positive value.  That premise has incalculably serious implications for all of us.

The Historical Cost of Abandoning Moral Absolutes

Abandoning moral absolutes today makes it easier tomorrow to choose death in other ways, for other people, in other situations.  Euthanasia societies grew during the late 19th and early 20th century eugenics movements.  Thirty states passed sterilization laws embraced by both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  The Nazis legalized voluntary euthanasia, and then involuntarily euthanized hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill. They then extended euthanasia’s reach to Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables.” When doctors play god, the positive value of life becomes an immorally-relative individual choice.

The Serious Implications of Doctor-assisted Killing

Authorizing doctors to prescribe poison creates a culture of death with serious implications. As late as the 1940s, this country’s leading euthanasia proponent, Dr. Foster Kennedy, continued to advocate compulsory euthanasia for retarded children.  By the 1970s, the euthanasia movement’s focus shifted to easing the “burden” of caring for the elderly, and then to easing suffering.

The Dutch experiment in physician-assisted suicide failed frighteningly. Dutch legal requirements were consistently violated and could not be enforced.  At one time sixty percent of Dutch assisted suicide cases went unreported.  Most non-reporting involved cases in which physicians failed to follow established guidelines for voluntariness or consultation.

Worse, in several thousand cases each year physicians ended their patient’s life without the patient’s consent. Twenty-five percent of physicians terminated one or more patient’s life without request. In the 1995 study year, 40 percent of the more than 6,000 cases in which physicians actively intervened to cause death involved no explicit request from the patient.  Each major Dutch measure enacted to control and regulate physician-assisted suicide (including informed consent, consultation, and reporting) largely failed, was modified, or was violated.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg rightly recognized that “what is couched as a limited right to ‘physician-assisted suicide’ is likely, in effect, a much broader license, which could prove extremely difficult to solve and contain.” Indeed, what we sow today, we will reap tomorrow.

Doctor Assisted Killing Creates a Frightening “Duty to Die”

Physician-assisted suicide creates in practice a frightening “duty to die.” Frightening because the practice of physician-assisted suicide is so imperfect that patients given a supposed lethal dose sometimes live for more than three hours.   Families are occasionally called on to intervene with pillows or plastic bags.


The AMA’s proposed policy change rejects the inviolable standard serving as the foundation for the Hippocratic Oath.  It also rejects the truth that physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. The serious implications for our nation that accompany such a choice are clear.  Moral foundations matter.  Because they do, the AMA should act to now to protect them.

source: Wagner, Restoring the Intrinsic Dignity of Human Life (University of Portland) and sources cited therein)



About the Author

Prof. William Wagner
WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at SAU
Professor Wagner holds the WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at Spring Arbor University. He has a special interest in building and preserving environments where Christians may share the Good News of Jesus, free from persecution and oppression.

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