A dying cancer patient is in excruciating pain. The doctor must choose between alleviating pain or shortening life: the painkillers that would help the patient could kill them quicker than the cancer. Suddenly the Hippocratic Oath may not seem guidance enough.
According to Clive Seale’s research, doctors dealing with death, despite their best efforts to act objectively, may turn to faith to make such ethically-challenging decisions.
Seale, a medical sociologist with Queen Mary University of London, surveyed doctors of varying specialties within Great Britain, asking them to report, among other things, on both the care of their last patient who died and their religious beliefs.
Questions covered a number of moral gray areas in end-of-life care, from withholding risky treatments from an elderly stroke patient to assisted suicide.
For his analysis, Seale lumped all of these types of decisions together to facilitate a simple yes/no comparison between doctors who made decisions that shortened a patient’s life and those who did not.
When he then compared the religiosity of these respondents, he found “religious” doctors were less likely to make any decisions that could shorten a patient’s life. They were also less likely to discuss such options with a patient.
Some might use Seale’s research to demonize religion or the lack thereof. But that would be missing the point. What one should notice, says Seale, is that “values of all kinds—religious and non-religious—seem to enter into [medical] decision-making.”
In other words, doctors’ beliefs matter. Medicine cannot keep feigning objectivity; rather, doctors should be forthright about their beliefs. At the end of life, as in the rest of it, honesty is the best policy.