Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Faith in Dying

This Monday's Health Report dealt with the dying, rather than the living.

Dr Frank Brennan, who works in palliative care, shared some heart-rending stories - but his remarks along the way bothered me. Firstly, his admission that palliative care physicians tend to be opposed to euthanasia, and secondly, that this choice of vocation may be related to their faith.

Dr Brennan professed to humility: "there's a tremendous sense of professional humility really that comes over me often." But he also said: "because our confidence in dealing with so many of these difficult symptoms,"..."perhaps takes away the need then to, beyond the course of the ethics and the law relating to euthanasia, the need to even pursue that line of discussion."

Humility, or an overdose of confidence? Are palliative care doctors benevolent wardlords with the power to tease out rations of morphine, crumb by crumb - sufficient to maintain life, block bowels and induce dribble - but not for a dying wish? Wasted and desperate, the subjects linger on while their loved ones, pitifully coy, inquire after a "needle to end suffering". Did Dr Brennan not wonder why, if palliative care worked, this request for a needle was so familiar he had a rote answer "prepared and clear" ready to roll?

Eventually the dying are too weak to make requests, or too comatose. At this point euthanasia is no longer an issue, for, as Dr Brennan says: " the natural process of dying, already progressing, would inevitably lead to her death." Right-to-Lifers score again!

If hospices and their physicians in Australia are largely religious and keen to stifle debate, how is euthanasia to get a fair hearing whenever these experts are consulted? Is faith a barrier to humane solutions? Are vocations in palliative care sought opportunistically to indulge one's faith, defend one's faith (block euthanasia) and even to proselytize?

Lucy Jr.

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