Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Compassion should never lead us to kill

Lord Falconer's article in The Times entitled "A more civilised approach to suicide" argues in favour of decriminalising relatives who escort a loved on to a suicide clinic abroad. He then makes an appeal for compassion for the families of the terminally ill, who are already under tremendous pressure. Compassion should never be equated with facilitation of a medically assisted death.

Compassion need not kill
The treatment of illness and the relief of suffering have advanced very considerably in the past decades. Symptom control has also made major advances. Our understanding of the nature of pain and human responses to it are increasing steadily. Pharmacological and physical methods for its relief are available and effective for conditions and circumstances which would have been previously resistant. Drug delivery systems, special formulation, chemotherapeutic agents, physical techniques such as TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) are pushing back the thresholds of pain and bringing relief to those who are appropriately assessed and treated.

The Ethos of Medical Practice
It is no part of the doctor's tradition or ethos to kill. This option was open in pre-Hippocratic Medicine, but Hippocratic tradition, and later, Judeo-Christian teaching set out to change this and to oblige the doctor to preserve and sustain life by every means possible. It has always been accepted that death could not be postponed indefinitely, but the duty of the doctor as expressed by Ambroise Pare 'to cure sometimes, to alleviate often, to comfort always', has stopped short of death as a treatment option. There is still in most doctors an abhorrence of killing, even accidentally, and a deeper abhorrence of doing so intentionally.

Doctors who have to deal with the very ill and terminally ill will admit to having been tempted at some time to bring a patient's life to an end. Doctors, with a few exceptions are not in the forefront of the demand for eithanasia or medically assisted suicide. They are however involved in the ethical, moral and practical issues (Lack of information, or equipment or resources) around terminal care. There is a basic need is for better clinical awareness of the principles of good management of troublesome symptoms and, as a consequence, better education and training of health-care professionals in these principles. Good clinical judgment is based on knowledge, compassion and integrity.

Ian Galloway, convener of the Church & Society Council recently presented the views of the church of Scotland in an articpublished an article on Interfaith Matters. In there he states
Pain management is a significant component within palliative care. Since its inception, palliative care education has used the model of multidisciplinary education. Palliative care is synonymous with holistic care which includes physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. It is an approach which seeks to maximise the quality of life of patients and their families facing problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems. In recent years the provision of spiritual and religious care has benefitted greatly from multi-faith and multicultural approaches to healthcare and the move towards professionalisation of healthcare chaplaincy. If palliative care includes good spiritual care and a managed approach to pain, then some of the issues leading to calls for physician assisted suicide may be resolved.
Rvd. Galloway's views have been picked up by other bloggers.

The irreducible minimum of care has been defined as -fuid and nutrition, analgesia and tender loving care. The phrase 'compassion mingled with respect' attributed to Mother Teresa, perhaps sums up a more constructive attitude towards end-or-life issues. If a community is to claim to be civilised and compassionate it must care for those facing the last moments of their lives withou hastening that end.


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