Controversial Medical Ethics Language Fails

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According to its website, the purpose of the World Medical Association (WMA) “is to serve humanity by endeavoring to achieve the highest international standards in Medical Education, Medical Science, Medical Art and Medical Ethics, and Health Care for all people in the world.”

The WMA serves as the governing body over and caretaker of the International Code of Medical Ethics. The “Code” is something most of us don’t spend too much time thinking about, but it does have an impact on the type and manner of medical care a person may or may not receive. The Code had been under revision and new language was to be presented for consideration by the WMA. 

The initial draft of the proposed Code contained problematic language which required effective patient referral. If approved, the language would have made it a violation of the Code if physicians with moral objections to certain procedures, such as assisted suicide, failed to refer patients for such treatments.

Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, is the Director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a Senior Research Scholar. He holds a joint appointment at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics and is the inaugural Andre Hellegers Professor of Biomedical Ethics, with co-appointments in the Departments of Philosophy and Medicine at Georgetown. Medical ethics is central to the doctor’s life and work. Dr. Sulmasy presented a strong case against effective patient referral at the initial review meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia in July 2022.  Later, a group of United States and Canadian physicians traveled to the summary meeting in Washington D.C. the week of August 8, 2022, to attempt to overturn the effective referral language. 

As a result of that effort, there will be no language requiring effective referral in the final draft revising the International Code of Medical Ethics being forwarded to the WMA General Assembly for consideration when it next meets in Berlin, Germany. Had the effective referral language been approved, it would have put enormous pressure on physicians in countries and states where assisted suicide is legal and given a green light for other medical associations and state legislatures (such as New York’s) to adopt similar referral language.   

In an email, Barbara L. Lyons, Deputy Coalitions Director at the Patients Rights Action Fund (PRAF), wrote, “PRAF gives huge thanks to Drs. Dan Sulmasy, Jeff White, Ewan Goligher, Rene Leiva, Tom Sullivan, Marie-Alberte Boursiquot, Ramona Coelho, Shirley Reddoch, Jeffrey Barrows and Tim Millea for their extensive work on this issue.  Their dedication and efforts now protect the medical profession and their own medical practices from the encroachment of efforts to force physicians to comply over conscientious objection.”

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