Chaplains at the End of Life

Recently, the issue of physician-assisted suicide, or the “right-to-die” movement has been getting a lot of attention from religious leaders and policy-makers alike. Much of that attention can be attributed to a hard-to-miss billboard in Hillside, NJ which was put up on June 28th. The billboard was funded by an organization that provides guidance to adults suffering from constant pain or incurable diseases seeking to end their lives called Final Exit. The billboard reads, “My Life, My Death, My Choice, FinalExitNetwork.org”

Final Exit’s principles hold that no one, not even clergy, can interfere with the basic human right to die. However, writer and academic historian Ian Dowbiggin, recently argued that the issue of euthanasia has always been theological in nature – therefore, important decision making should include the communication between doctors and open-minded religious leaders.
 
Unfortunately, the services of trained clinical Chaplains and other religious leaders are often underused within hospitals and health care facilities. Health care Chaplains are trained educators, both in religio-cultural competency and on how to conduct spiritual assessments with patients, adding great value to patient-care teams.
 
Learning how to use Chaplains as an intermediary between patient, family, and physician can enhance communication during end-of-life care, or perhaps help religious and secular patients alike contemplate the hard-hitting and sensitive questions that surround an issue like physician-assisted suicide. 

Regardless of Final Exit’s mixed reviews, ranging from grateful thanks to accusations of heartless murder by atheists, it seems very unlikely that this billboard will be the last we hear from the “right-to-die” movement. President Obama recently told The New York Times that the chronically ill could be accounting for 80 percent of the total health care bill in the US. With all of the miraculous medical advances we have seen in the past 50 years, Americans are living longer, and are therefore more likely to face long-term battles with diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

These trends could boost the demand for assisted-suicide, making Tanenbaum’s efforts to integrate clinically trained religious leaders into health care dialogues and decision-making all the more urgent for patients and practitioners alike.