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AMA policy on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide – an update

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The issue of euthanasia remains very much to the fore in current media, and attempts to introduce euthanasia laws continue in several states.

In South Australia, a new voluntary euthanasia Bill is currently being considered by Parliament and will be voted on as soon as this month. Pro-euthanasia MPs in Tasmania and Western Australia have indicated they will introduce legislation in the near future. The Victorian Government is due to respond by year’s end to a report on the Inquiry into End of Life Choices in Australia, which recommends the development of a legislative framework for assisted dying.

In the midst of this, the AMA’s review of its own policy on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide continues to progress. The Federal Council held a special policy session on the issue at its meeting in August, where it considered information gained from a very wide-ranging and deliberate process of member consultation, including:

  • the results of an AMA member survey on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide;
  • issues raised through this year’s AMA National Conference Q&A session on assisted dying;
  • member responses to the current AMA policy (undertaken last year through Australian Medicine); and
  • relevant background information on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, including national and international legislative initiatives and professional and community attitudes.

At its August meeting, Federal Council recognised the diversity of member views on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide and agreed that there was a need to consult further with State and Territory AMA offices on whether the AMA’s current policy opposing doctor involvement in euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide should be amended.

There were, however, several issues highlighted at the meeting over which there was no dispute:

  • access to adequate palliative care and end of life care remains inadequate throughout the country;
  • regardless of the final policy position, there must be appropriate funding of palliative care and greater clarity regarding legislative protections for doctors providing good end of life care for their patients; and
  • irrespective of whether or not euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide become legal in Australia, it is imperative that the medical profession articulates the message that end of life care is a central responsibility of doctors, and that we will always care for patients and the broader community.

The members of Federal Council are acutely aware that this issue is sensitive and controversial, and that any decision will have potential political ramifications and consequences for health care. It is an issue on which some members have very strong views, many of which have been expressed as heart-felt and compelling arguments during the current consultation process.

However, because this is a debate about something that is very much at the core of what it is to be a doctor – that is, whether doctors should be involved in actions with a specific intention to end life – there are times when those with opposing views maybe forget the need to genuinely listen to each other. This is unfortunate when it occurs, because what has become very clear during the consultation process is that all members, whatever their views, have shown a deep dedication to the care of their patients and the welfare of the community as a whole. 

So, the Federal Council’s mission is to be respectful of the views of all members, and to be understanding of the passion of those with opposing views, while seeking to find a position which is sensible and justifiable, but also reflects the unbreakable responsibility of doctors to always care for their patients.

Federal Council will continue its deliberations on a euthanasia and physician assisted suicide policy position at its upcoming meeting in November. We will keep members informed of the progress of this issue.