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Professional Organizations' Position Statements on Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Case for Studied Neutrality

Timothy E. Quill, MD; and Christine K. Cassel, MD
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From University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York; and Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, Portland, Oregon.

Acknowledgment: The authors thank Daniel Federman for his careful reading and feedback on early drafts of the manuscript.

Requests for Single Reprints: Timothy E. Quill, MD, University of Rochester Medical Center, Box 601, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Rochester, NY 14642.

Current Author Addresses: Dr. Quill: University of Rochester Medical Center, Box 601, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Rochester, NY 14642.

Dr. Cassel: Office of the Dean, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, 3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Road, Portland, OR 97201-3098.

Ann Intern Med. 2003;138(3):208-211. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-138-3-200302040-00013
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Position statements opposing legalization of physician-assisted suicide by organizations such as the American College of PhysiciansAmerican Society of Internal Medicine rightly emphasize that palliative care should be the standard of care for the dying, and that the inadequacies that exist in its delivery should be remedied. But such position statements generally understate the limitations of palliative care to alleviate some end-of-life suffering, and they do not provide adequate guidance about how physicians should approach patients with intractable suffering who are prepared to die. In this manuscript, we briefly present data about severe suffering before death for terminally ill patients, including those enrolled in hospice programs. We also review some of what is known about requests and responses for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and in the rest of the United States. Preliminary data from Oregon suggest that legally sanctioned access to physician-assisted suicide is used by a very small number of patients and seems to be associated with improved delivery of hospice and palliative care. Physicians of good will, deep religious convictions, and considerable palliative care experience exist on both sides of the debate about legalization of physician-assisted suicide. In an effort to respect this diversity, and to encourage our profession to continue to struggle with the genuine dilemmas faced by some patients toward the end of their lives and by their families, we argue in favor of medical organizations' taking a position of studied neutrality on this contentious issue.





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