Medical Associations in New England Rescind Opposition to Euthanasia

December 04, 2017
Source: District of the USA
Headquarters of the MMS, publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Both the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Vermont Medical Society have changed their stances on the issue within a month.

During an interim meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) on Saturday, the MMS governing body voted on an “end of life care” resolution, as well as other resolutions that stand to become part of its organizational policy. These policies do not carry the force of law, but have influence on both state and national medical practices.

The society has rescinded its long-held opposition to doctor-assisted suicide in this resolution and “adopted a neutral engagement” position. This was done with the argument that the MMS could more effectively “engage” with lawmakers in the Massachusetts legislature as it debates the legality of euthanasia in the state.

A Shift in Attitude

This comes on the heels of Vermont’s board (VMS) taking a very similar stand on November 4. If one counts District of Columbia, Massachusetts is now the 10th state medical association to drop formal opposition to euthanasia.

The VMS in this case was playing catch-up with its state legislators, which had passed a “death with dignity” bill in 2013 allowing a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of narcotic to a terminally ill patient who requests it. Four other states – California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, along with Washington, D.C. – have enacted legislation like Vermont’s, with Montana allowing euthanasia by virtue of the state supreme court.

According to a release on the MMS website, however, the association does recommend a sort of “conscientious objector” status for physicians:

…physicians should not be required to practice medical aid-in-dying that involves the prescribing of lethal doses of medication if it violates personally held ethical principles."

A Disturbing Statistical Trend

A 2016 report by medical news website Medscape found that 57% of physicians surveyed nationally believe medically-assisted suicide should be available for terminally-ill patients, up from 46% in 2010. The general public is sadly more supportive, with 68% favoring the option for physician-assisted death when asked in a 2015 Gallup poll.

National medical associations have yet to cross the threshold these states have already passed, with the American College of Physicians recently affirming its opposition to the practice. However, the American Medical Association this year directed its Council on Judicial and Ethical Affairs to review the issue with physicians.