Many years ago, I attended a conference where physicians and others discussed care for dying patients. One speaker asked audience members how they would prefer to die: To pass away after long illness, with time to prepare for death and make peace with loved ones, or to have a heart attack and die instantly on the golf course.
Most doctors seemed to vote for dying instantly. Maybe a few did so because golf was mentioned. The more ominous prospect is that they knew how badly their own profession helps people deal with dying.
There have been improvements since then. But our country still has an aging population, a growing prevalence of noncommunicable diseases like cancer and heart disease and a medical profession that is proficient in “high-tech” treatments but uncertain how to care for those we cannot cure. Developing nations have the opposite problem: A culture that appreciates the value of simply “being with” the sick, but little access to medical care or effective pain medications.
These are some of the things I heard this month at the annual assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, an advisory body that is now part of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life. The good news is that an international campaign is underway to promote “palliative care” for all patients with incurable illness who need it.
Palliative care improves the quality of life for patients with life-threatening illness and their families. The World Health Organization says it “affirms life and regards dying as a normal process,” and “intends neither to hasten nor postpone death.” It affirms patients’ dignity, helping them live as comfortably as possible for as long as they live. It is a “biopsychosocial” model of care, a big word for addressing physical, psychological, interpersonal and spiritual suffering.
Through its PAL-LIFE project, the Academy for Life is helping to advance such care (www.academiavita.org). It has helped develop two “Religions of the World” charters by which religious leaders can commit themselves to improving palliative care for older people and for children.
The project has researched the state of palliative care and the church’s role in it worldwide. It has encouraged demonstration projects in some of the poorest nations to show how trained volunteers can help medical professionals expand access to care. And it has urged medical associations and policymakers to include palliative care in efforts for universal health care.
Proponents of assisted suicide routinely use stories of suffering during terminal illness to drive their agenda. Exploiting people’s fears, they claim killing the patient can be the only way to end suffering.
They don’t mention that assisted suicide passes on the suffering to loved ones — and to other vulnerable patients, when they realize that society sees their very existence as a problem with a quick solution. Nor do proponents mention that accepting assisted suicide undermines society’s commitment to the hard work of improving care. When we allay fear and help patients live with dignity, we oppose a culture of death.
Beyond the assisted suicide debate, our church recognizes that suffering exists “in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s ‘I’ on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer” (St. John Paul II, “Salvifici Doloris,” No. 29). When we show compassion for the seriously ill and alleviate their physical, emotional and spiritual pain, we build a culture of life.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.