Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Religious Patients More Likely to Seek Aggressive, Life-Prolonging Care

The results of this study may seem somewhat contradictory, but they do not surprise me in the least.

A new study, to be published tomorrow in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reports that, of terminally ill cancer patients, those who were devoutly religious, were almost three times as likely to seek aggressive, life-prolonging care, and they were less likely to do advance care planning—living wills, DNR orders, appointing health care proxies, etc.

You might at first think that the religious would be ready to go on to the afterlife and therefore more comfortable with death and more prepared for it, but some of the anecdotal evidence I have heard from people in the medical field contradicts that supposition. Also, if you remember back to the Terri Schiavo case, it was self-identified religious groups fighting to keep her on life support.

Sometimes, theses issues overlap in ways that don't necessarily equate with common sense.


Gail Rae said...

I'd never wondered about this but, like you, I'm not surprised, either. I'm thinking that the connection with religiosity seeking life-prolonging care may have something to do with a belief, very common among the deeply religious, that gods take you when they want you, not before and not after. Thus, our "job" is not to interfere in the supposedly omniscient determination of when our life should end and to honor our lives by seeing to it that we overtly do nothing that might be interpreted as cutting our lives short. Of course, this ignores all the seemingly inconsequential life choices we make that actually do cut our lives short, but, you know, religious thought, even when it flirts with logic, never claims to be logical and often celebrates its relationship to the illogical by claiming to preserve mystery.

Jessica Knapp said...

I think you've nailed it on the head. But with life support and other life-extending technologies, even if you are religious, it's rarely as simple as god just ending life one moment. Many, many people end life in complicated states of half consciousness, comas, life-support, etc. And maybe we've put ourselves in this position as a society by developing life-extending technologies before we deciding entirely how we were going to handle them.

Eleanor Clift, the Newsweek reporter, wrote a fascinating book contrasting the last two weeks of her husband's life with the chaos of the Terri Schaivo case. Clift's husband died in hospice care during the heat of the Schaivo case. So, she writes about the contrast between traditional hospice death and someone being extended for years and years in a coma on life-support—not to mention the media and political circus around poor Schaivo. It's called "Two Weeks of Life." You can definitely tell Clift is a journalist and not a novelist, dry in spots, but it's a great read overall. And I think she basically comes to the same conclusion that you do about the religious communities who are in favor of extending life in all possible ways.

Anyway, you can probably tell by my rambling here, I have always found this particular issue fascinating.