One of the nation’s largest doctors’ lobbies has retracted its opposition to assisted suicide.

Delegates from the American Academy of Family Physicians, which represents more than 130,000 doctors nationwide, voted to change the group’s stance to “engaged neutrality” on the question of whether physicians should be able to prescribe lethal medications to patients. The resolution was reached at the organization’s Congress of Delegates held last week in New Orleans. AAFP president Michael Munger said in a statement posted to the group’s website that the resolution was designed to help doctors care for their patients.

“Through our ongoing and continuous relationship with our patients, family physicians are well-positioned to counsel patients on end-of-life care, and we are engaged in creating change in the best interest of our patients,” Dr. Munger said.

The resolution goes further than reversing the group’s longstanding opposition. It also seeks to eliminate the phrase “assisted suicide” and replace it with “medical aid in dying,” the preferred term used by supporters of the practice. It also encourages AAFP to woo other physician groups to reverse their opposition. AAFP will seek to convince the national American Medical Association, the largest health care group in the country, to ditch its opposition to assisted suicide and embrace a neutral position—a move that several health care chapters have done at the state level.

“The action taken [on Oct. 9] allows the AAFP to advocate for engaged neutrality on this subject at future AMA House of Delegates meetings,” Munger said.

Supporters of assisted suicide praised AAFP for becoming one of the largest medical groups to change course on the controversial legalization measures—which lawmakers have largely rejected in bipartisan fashion in statehouses ranging from heavily Republican Utah to Democratic Massachusetts.

Dr. David Grube, a former AAFP delegate who now works as national medical director of the pro-assisted suicide Compassion & Choices, said the group’s stance is a welcome step to convincing the AMA to follow suit.

“I am proud that the organization has adopted a position of engaged neutrality to ensure its members can advise terminally ill patients about all end-of-life care options and provide them,” he said in a release. “I believe many AMA constituent societies will follow suit, so it is only a matter of time before the AMA does as well.”

Opponents to assisted suicide criticized AAFP for the delegates’ decision. Matthew Valliere, president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, called the move to neutrality as synonymous with approval, which could prove “dangerous and irresponsible” for patients.

“This policy puts people with terminal illness, advanced age, disabilities, and economic disadvantage at risk for harm, abuse, and coercion. Patients deserve real medical care, not the ever cheap and easy assisted suicide,” Valliere said in a statement (emphasis in the original). He predicted it would threaten “the integrity of the patient-physician relationship,” rather than help AAFP members support those under their care.

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, called neutrality “disappointing and frightening.” He urged AAFP to return to its roots as caregivers and embrace the larger medical establishment, which maintains opposition. The momentum of the debate could easily “corrupt these scientific institutions” beyond neutrality into “mandated acceptance” if groups lift their committed opposition.

“This practice goes against the very essence of what doctors are supposed to be—turning them from healers into killers—and it is an affront to the human dignity of patients, implying that they would be better off dying than struggling to live,” Schilling said. “For vulnerable Americans whose lives would be imperiled by the widespread adoption of assisted suicide, this development can only be seen as a dangerous step in the wrong direction.”

Advocates for assisted suicide have seen movement at the institutional level at the AMA. A majority of the AMA delegates voted in June to revisit assisted suicide even after a study committee of doctors endorsed maintaining the existing ban in its Code of Ethics.

The AMA did not respond to a request for comment.

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