The Boston Globe reports that the Massachusetts Medical Society is planning to conduct a survey of its 25,000 members in order to determine their perspectives on either “medical aid in dying” or “physician-assisted suicide.”

Deciding what to call it seems to be one of the main sticking points.

The doctors even disagreed about what words to use to describe the movement. Supporters preferred to call it “medical aid in dying” and emphasized the protracted suffering of terminally ill patients. But critics prefer the term “physician-assisted suicide,” and they emphasized that doctors are entering a slippery slope if they are allowed to prescribe fatal drugs to hasten a patient’s death.

Dr. Barbara Rockett, a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society urged her colleagues to wait until the American Medical Association completes its own national survey.

She also said she disapproves of the term “medical aid in dying,” which she thinks attempts to neutralize the profound ethical issues for doctors.

“Let’s call it what it is — physician-assisted suicide,” she said.

But supporters of this option say “suicide” is an emotionally loaded — and inaccurate — term because terminally ill patients who seek this alternative are not suicidal, but want to live.

As a bit of an aside, it is interesting that no particular supporter is named as holding the view that “terminally ill patients who seek this alternative are not suicidal, but want to live,” which is, at best, poorly worded.

Other physicians emphasized the Hippocratic notion of the role of the physician in the practice of medicine.

Dr. Mary Louise Ashur, an internal medicine doctor in Needham who spoke largely against the resolution, said advances in palliative care must be front and center in this debate, and this reflects the medical community’s ongoing compassion toward the dying.

This is absolutely correct. So much of the reporting and writing on end of life issues simply ignores (a) the basic fact that palliative care even exists, and (b) the many advances that have been made in the field. Simply put, there is much that can be done to care for those with terminal illness, to support patients and their caregivers, and to relieve both the pain and the many forms of suffering that accompany the process of dying. Much more could be said on this, but I will save that for another day.

In the end, the survey was approved

The specific questions in the poll — and who will oversee it and how it will be unrolled — have yet to be finalized, said society spokesman Rick Gulla. Meanwhile, both sides are staying in close touch with the medical society to hear details of the survey.

Said Rockett: “How they word this will be important.”

Indeed, indeed. We must talk about this openly and fully if we are to decide well on how to live at the end of life.

With Dr. Rockett, I say, “Let’s call it what it is — physician-assisted suicide.”

See also:
Why the CBC Opposes Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia