Author Archives: Lily Marlaine Faust

Religious Hospitals Limiting End of Life Options

I came across an article in the latest issue of Mother Jones that I found very interesting.  The article describes a woman in need of any emergency medical abortion, for she miscarried one of the twins that she was carrying, and was put at risk of internal bleeding.  The chances that she would lose the other twin were almost guaranteed.  Her local hospital was in the middle of a merger with a Catholic hospital company, which required doctors to abide by the church’s religious directives.  Because of this provision, she was forced to travel to a hospital hours away to complete the procedure.

Without engaging the debate about the desirability of religious healthcare services or the abortion issue, I’d like to look at the question of what happens when life-affecting medical services are not provided.  In the example given, a woman’s life was put at risk because she was unable to obtain the necessary abortion.   But another issue raised is what happens when end of life requests are ignored.  In these religiously-oriented hospitals, patient’s requests to be removed from systems of life support are ignored, even if these desires are communicated in living wills.

The article details the increasing prevalence of Catholic hospitals, which have been on a “merger streak” nationwide, acquiring increasing numbers of hospitals, insurance plans, and nursing homes.   In fact, Catholic hospitals alone care for one sixth of American patients.  However, their policies seem to contradict aspects of federal law and thus raise interesting questions about the ethics of end of life care.

The following describes some of the issues with living wills

Despite some of the issues involved, end of life wishes and living wills seem to represent the ultimate freedom in American society; what symbolizes free will more than the ability to determine your own death?  Yet, the rise of these religiously-motivated organizations puts a constraint on this freedom, or the ability of an individual to reach what they determine is a good death.

Some of the questions we could raise for discussion, without going into religion or politics, are illustrated through this article on religious hospitals.  They present the dilemma of what happens when medical and end of life wishes are not respected.

For further reading on living wills:

The Last Meal

There is a really interesting website called the Last Meals Project.  It documents the last meals of inmates on death row as a statement on the death penalty.  The profiles contained on the site include a variety of celebrity criminals, such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy.  It shows pictures of the condemned, as well as of their last meal foods.

The site points out that the last meals of prisoners on death row become a matter of public record.  The whole concept, according to Brent Cunningham, is either perverse or compassionate, for, as its last act, the state offers the incarcerated the substance of life.  Also, the connection between food and death is extensive, in a variety of cross-cultural rituals, from Huron farewell feasts to Chinese rituals of feeding the dead, so the last meal also serves as a consolidation of this connection.

Brent Cunningham also points out that the American public is almost entirely removed from the execution process.  This raises the question of whether or not the last meal is still a ritualized step offered before execution or whether the last meal’s relevance has declined.  According to Daniel LaChance, the last meal remains an important ritual because it offers an emotional component to an otherwise sterile execution process and restores a degree of humanity to the condemned.  On the other hand, even though last meals are a matter of public record, they are not a terribly well publicized phenomenon.  The last meal project site is attempting to change this.

The irony of the process is that prisoners often do not get what they ask for for their last meals.  Thus, the last meal ritual remains in use because what is considered important  is the request that is broadcast to the public.  Society can see that prisoners are treated with a degree of compassion, if they are given a special last meal before their execution.  So, considering this phenomenon, we have to ask, is justice served?

Chemical Weapons and Mass Killing in Syria

For the past few weeks, we have watched history in the making.  After the August 21st attack outside of Damascus, in which it has become clear that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons, President Obama spoke of the impetus for the U.S. to militarily intervene in Syria.  Though the “Syrian Crisis” now seems to be on the wane and President Obama has modified his approach, the crisis raised serious questions about the nature and means of death.

Syria has been locked in a deadly civil war for over two years.  More than 100,000 people have died and millions have become refugees.  Yet, it was not until last month that President Obama warned the Assad regime not to cross a “red line,” a metaphorical humanitarian boundary.  The question is, do the means through which a regime murders its people matter?  Is there something fundamentally unthinkable about the use of chemical weapons?  According to a Huffington Post article (See below), not more than 500 casualties were observed from the chemical attacks.  Therefore, is this adequate justification for military intervention?

Without launching a debate on politics or U.S. foreign policy, I would like to discuss the implications of chemical weapons.  They seem to represent monstrous mass killing, not seen since the trench warfare of the first world war.  But they also hold a moral weight.  The argument appears to be that death is not just death, rather, the means matter.  There is something intrinsically horrific about extermination via gas.  President Obama used this idea, when he described children writhing in pain from chemical gas attacks.

The real question, then, is whether the means of death can be compared.  Are specific methods, such as chemical gas, absolutely immoral?  Do they justify U.S. retaliation via airstrike, which would presumably result in much larger civilian casualties, or can we accept that death is death, measurable in scale, but whose means do not matter?