The American Medical Association will likely continue in its activist role against physician-assisted suicide, even as the U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it would hear arguments on the explosive issue during its 1996-97 session.
"We are extremely pleased that the highest court in the land will make a declaration regarding the constitutionality of what we feel is a misguided and unethical practice. To in any way condone physician-assisted suicide would...dramatically and fundamentally change the entire patient/physician relationship," said AMA Chairwoman Nancy W. Dickey in a written statement released last week.
AMA spokesman Mark Wolfe said the association had submitted friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court last summer as it mulled the case.
Wolfe said it was "too early to tell" whether the AMA would submit briefs as part of the upcoming hearing, but he didn't rule it out.
The AMA has been staunchly opposed to physician-assisted suicide, and has always expressed confidence that the courts would ban it outright. But supporters of the practice, such as Seattle-based Compassion in Dying, have asserted that there is far less of a consensus against it among individual doctors.
Compassion in Dying's legal counsel, Kathryn Tucker of the Seattle firm of Perkins Coie, has had a prominent role in molding the issue. Last March, the group won a landmark victory when it persuaded the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to overturn Washington state's law banning physician-assisted suicide. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court in New York also had overturned a New York law that banned the practice.
Compassion in Dying and its counterparts in New York had argued that outlawing the practice while still allowing terminally ill patients the right to refuse life-prolonging treatment-a right the Supreme Court recognized in 1990-violated the Constitution's equal protection clause.
But Barbara Coombs Lee, Compassion in Dying's interim executive director, actually had hoped the high court would reject the case, thereby legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
"On strictly procedural grounds, there was no reason to hear the case," said Lee, who noted the consensus among the lower courts.
The legal wranglings take place just as the first lawful physician-assisted suicide in the world took place in Australia last month. That nation's Northern Territories legalized the practice earlier this year. Physicians in the Netherlands also regularly help terminally ill patients end their lives, even though it is technically considered illegal there.