December 6, 2017

President: Mass Medical Society divided as position on aid-in-dying changes

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Dr. Henry Dorkin, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said that members clarified that physician-assisted suicide is just one aspect of medical aid in dying, before voting to rescind opposition to the practice. Other aspects include palliative care, hospice care and mental health services, Dorkin said.

Emotions ran high at an interim meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society House of Delegates on Saturday, as members of the physician group voted to rescind their longstanding opposition to physician-assisted suicide, according to MMS President Dr. Henry Dorkin.

Instead, members adopted a position of neutral engagement, allowing the organization to serve as a medical and scientific resource as lawmakers consider a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe a deadly dose of medication to terminally ill patients who seek it.

"It was fair to say this was quite an interaction," Dorkin said in an interview Monday, two days after the meeting. Dorkin said debate on the resolution, which was among a host of those that members voted on, lasted more than four hours. "Emotion was quite intense on both sides," he said.

The MMS has formally opposed physician-assisted suicide since 1996, and voting to be neutrally engaged doesn't mean members necessarily support it or must provide such treatment, if it's legalized in Massachusetts.

Dorkin said members stipulated that medical-aid-in-dying, as it's being called by proponents who filed legislation, includes lethal medication for the terminally, among a host of of measures that support the terminally ill, such as palliative care, hospice and mental health services.

"We felt there was better definition about what was being talked about," Dorkin said.

Still, members are divided on the issue, according to Dorkin. A formal survey of members' views is expected to be complete this month. Meanwhile, Dorkin said some doctors think it's an important option for doctors to provide patients, while others believe it violates the Hippocratic Oath, which stipulates physicians must do no harm, and there's a variety of sentiment falling in between.

The American Medical Association opposes physician assisted suicide, but opposition among the public in Massachusetts may be waning, as a ballot question to legalize the practice was only narrowly defeated in 2012.

Six states and Washington, D.C. have legalized the practice.

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