Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Study: Religious People Take More Aggressive End-of-Life Measures

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association conducted at Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston concludes that patients who use religion as a coping mechanism make more aggressive end-of-life treatment decisions. They're far more determined than non-religious patients to use every possible avenue to fight off death.

This not only falsifies one atheist comedian's statement that atheists are most scared of dying, it raises several interesting questions. The first one is obvious: if you believe a better life is in store for you after sloughing off this mortal coil, why not exit gracefully and forego all the aggressive interventions?

A religious person might argue that on the contrary, their holy scripture of choice specifies that life is sacred and must be protected at all costs. It's appropriate for us to ask where and how said scripture specifies exactly what modern medical end-of-life care measures are called for. The real world ethical issue here is whether it's within the treating physician's resopnsibilities to be asking those questions. Since the belief system affects care delivery, it's hard to see it's not the physician's duty.

It is also clearly the case that life-maintenance through many of these methods (intubation, ventilation, turning to prevent bedsores) is extremely unnatural; the sad spectacle of the Terry Schiavo makes this point for us. The relevance here is that the religious tendency to preserve life, in this case, avoids the usual dialog about what is natural or unnatural; in most other situations like birth control or genetic engineering, this point is front and center.

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