Recently, the AOA House of Delegates voted down a proposed policy statement on physician-assisted death. The new policy statement would have retained the AOA’s opposition to the legalization of physician-assisted death, but would have also stated that physicians who help their patients end their lives in states where it is legal shouldn’t be discriminated against.
Osteopathic oath concerns
“The primary concern was the wording we used in the task force report, which was physician-assisted death, to talk about the laws that had been passed,” says Anita Showalter, DO, a member of the end of life policy task force, which developed the new policy statement. “The consensus was that physician-assisted death is not compatible with the osteopathic oath.”
The AOA’s Public Affairs reference committee, which recommended disapproval, felt that the term physician-assisted suicide should be used rather than physician-assisted death, says Dr. Showalter, who also served on the Public Affairs committee. Additionally, the committee decided that the policy was not consistent across states because the law on physician-assisted suicide is different in many states.
“The House and reference committee made a clear statement that we are sticking with the traditional osteopathic values that are reflected in the osteopathic oath,” says Dr. Showalter. “It is the DO’s role to promote the health and wellbeing of a patient to their natural end. We do not see ourselves participating in hastening the death of a patient.”
Physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in seven states and Washington, DC, and another 23 states are considering legislation related to physician-assisted suicide at this time, according to deathwithdignity.org.
The topic is polarizing in the medical community. Many DOs share Dr. Showalter’s opinion, and many others, such as anesthesiologist Paul Rein, DO, believe physician-assisted suicide should be legal.
“First doing no harm does not necessarily mean you do everything you can to keep the patient’s heart beating,” says Dr. Rein, who practices in Williamsburg, Virginia, where physician-assisted suicide is illegal. “By doing that sometimes, we cause suffering, and suffering is harm.”