Wednesday, January 11, 2017

American psychiatrists signal opposition to euthanasia

Opponents of an assisted suicide bill rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, last June. The bill was later passed (CNS)American psychiatrists have come out against euthanasia for people who are not terminally ill.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) approved a statement at the end of December saying: “A psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.”

The APA is America’s largest organisation for psychiatrists, with some 25,000 members. 

The World Psychiatric Association is believed to be considering a similar statement.

Direct euthanasia, where a doctor gives a lethal injection to a patient, is not legal in the United States, but in five states it is legal for a doctor to prescribe a lethal drug which patients with a terminal illness can then take themselves.

But critics say that phrasing such as “unbearable suffering” might be used to extend euthanasia to people without terminal illnesses, but with mental illnesses such as depression. 

In Belgium this is legal. 

In 2014 and 2015, 124 patients with “mental or behavioural disorder” were euthanised; these were 3.1 per cent of the total of 3,950 cases in the two years.

In Canada, physician-assisted suicide was legalised for physical illnesses last June, and the country is considering extending this to include people with mental illnesses.

“So far, no other country that has implemented physician-assisted suicide has been able to constrain its application solely to the terminally ill, eventually including non-terminal patients as legally eligible as well,” said Mark Komrad, a member of the APA Ethics Committee. “This is when psychiatric patients start to be included.”

Opponents of euthanasia hope that the APA’s new stance – especially if this is followed by the World Psychiatric Association – may help to curb the spread of the practice.

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