Last week I joined an on-line forum on the topic of “palliative sedation.” It refers to the medical treatment of “inducing and maintaining deep sleep for the relief of deep suffering … when all possible alternative interventions have failed.” Such treatment “of last resort” clearly differs in its intent from euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide! A person thus medicated would likely stay asleep until death arrives—usually for only a few days. It’s a complex topic on which to reach consensus: ethical, religious, legal, and personal quandaries demand attention.
As it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have to make the decision regarding a patient—except as a minor player on the care team—this conversation is mainly theoretical. Yet as I look deep into my heart I imagine that the vow to “be of service” and the precept “to alleviate suffering” and to “do good” would serve as my reference point … and would rub against the precept “not to take a life.” Intention will most likely be the deciding factor: to kill, to hasten death, or to alleviate suffering.
In a café conversation this morning, I talked about this with a friend. The topic quickly moved from deep-sleep sedation to ways of ending one’s life. What if I were in extreme and uncontrollable pain, unable to do my own bathing, feeding, and toileting? Would I want to hasten my end? Could I ask/expect a friend to assist me in this? Would I be able to assist another person? Could I leave instructions to my designated decision-maker in case I’m unable to communicate my wishes regarding uncontrollable pain, hopelessness, and indignities? What if that person was unable or unwilling to heed my wishes? What do you think?
image: At the death bed by Edvard Munch (1896).