In my experience working with terminally ill patients over the past seven years, I have often seen people of the Christian faith go all out in the ICU, wanting “everything done” for a terminally ill loved one. In these circumstances, when I speak with family members of the patient, they tell me they will continue to pray for a miracle to happen. As a person of faith, I respect their faith and their right to exercise it. When appropriate, I gently remind them that ultimately we all die and that, in the case the miracle does not happen, it is good to have an end-of-life plan in place.
This experience came to mind when I read a recent article in www.time.com by Corinne Johns-Treat, a cancer patient who has decided that she wants “death with dignity.” The article stands out because she explains how she came to that decision in the context of her faith: “…[T]he more I learned about the safeguards and autonomy in the law, and the more I prayed about it, having seen people suffer so much at the very end of their lives, I came to believe in that it fit into my faith. I found comfort in this law” (California’s ‘End of Life Option Act’).
As I read her thoughtful article, several familiar themes arose: autonomy, personal suffering, and the painful experiences of others. These, of course, are used by others defending PAS who do not necessarily have a particular faith commitment. To place her decision within the framework of her Christian faith, Johns-Treat adds this thought: “If God grants us the intelligence to enable doctors to offer treatments that prolong life—that have prolonged my life—wouldn’t that same logic apply to those of us nearing the end of our life? When science can’t offer life-sustaining treatments anymore, then the role of medicine should be to relieve suffering.”
I don’t know anyone in the medical field who would disagree with the goal of “relieving suffering.” The question is how to define it. Cannot palliative care offer more to the dying patient than PAS? My work in hospice showed me that death does not need to be anguish for patient and family alike during the final hours of life. Palliative care physicians and their teams do tremendous work every day to relieve the terminally ill of their suffering. As the field of palliative care continues to deepen and grow, and as people become more aware of their mortality, I hope that PAS does not become the default method of “relieving suffering.”
Christians – and members of other faith groups – will undoubtedly continue to wrestle with these issues in the coming days. This is important because they are indeed matters of life and death.