At a well-attended dinner meeting of the Human Life Research Institute, held at Massey College in Toronto on September 12, Dr. John Scott spoke on a most timely topic – palliative care. He is associated with the Elizabeth Bruyere Health Centre in Ottawa, and after eighteen years at bedsides of people approaching death, he has a great deal of insight into their state of mind.

The Canadian public is not sure what to think about euthanasia, he said. It has been confused by a powerful lobby, which is not so much interested in the welfare of patients as in taking control of them. It may in fact take over palliative care with actions that hasten death, or with “sedating the dying.”

Not a simple process

Dr. Scott stressed that we should not simplify, as advocates of euthanasia do, a complex area. He did his best to explain clearly what palliative care actually means. Traditionally,  it has focused on the relief of pain, but he regards it  as much more than that – the whole care of a person, the care which enables him to live as fully as possible as death approaches. The patient should be as much in control as possible; his own autonomy should be respected, including his right to choose or to withdraw treatment. The patient is not offered, as the euthanasia lobby would have it, the choice between a quick good death and a slow painful one – that again is to oversimplify.

His own experience has left him strongly opposed to euthanasia; he insists that it is not wanted by patients or by those caring for them. Many patients who would philosophically have accepted the arguments of the Hemlock Society and the like have had a total change of perspective” suffering has taught them otherwise. Dr. Scott stressed the necessity of trying to understand the feelings and the fears of the terminally ill. They have a great fear of losing control of their own faculties, fear of the medical system, fear of being neglected and abandoned, fear of being a burden. They also have fear of personal worthlessness: “Does this life have any meaning? “ And, because of the uncertainty of the timing of death, they have a fear of the future:  “When will I die?”

Waiting for death

Dr. Scott, who is an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as a medical Doctor, concluded with a very moving Christian message. At the heart of the cry of the dying patient, he said, is a cry for light in darkness, a cry for life.  “Waiting for death,” he said, “is waiting for life.” Beneath the fears and the tension is a cry for the Lord’s embrace. From Christ come both a demand and an invitation to watch with Him.

One of the pioneers of the palliative care movement, Cicely Saunders, opened a hospice in Sydenham, south of London, England, just 25 years ago. Canada has followed behind, but it too now has excellent facilities. It is ironic that the pressure for euthanasia has become so intense just when a revolution has taken place in the care of the terminally ill. The work of dedicated people like Dr. Scott should be better known since it offers a far better alternative than the option provided by those who advocate legalized death, which so quickly can turn into legalized murder.