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Relieving suffering is a duty under the Hippocratic oath that should take precedence over preserving life

10 Sep 2019 10:13 AM | Philip Patston (Administrator)

Source: Letters, Herald Scotland

Does prolonging a life sometimes become more akin to prolonging death?

THE topic of assisted dying has been back on the discussion agenda recently, but I wonder if the subject is too polarised, and whether a more nuanced approach is necessary.

A relative of mine recently died in hospital, having existed, for several days, in excruciating pain on which the legal maximum palliative relief had no effect, while his wife and family had to sit by his bedside and watch as he kept pleading for release from the torture. Since this level of suffering is such as we would not allow an animal to endure, I cannot understand how it can be considered acceptable to inflict it on a human being, and I can only imagine the nightmare for the family at the bedside, let alone the trauma they will now have to live with for the rest of their days.

I once heard an Australian doctor suggest that this was not a matter of obeying the Hippocratic oath to prolong life but was simply prolonging death. Some say it is allowing nature to take its course, not deliberately ending a life, but if letting nature take its course is the correct approach, why treat other life-threatening illnesses and diseases? Is the reason in these other instances not to end suffering? Granted that the end result is hopefully to restore a viable life, does that mean that suffering should continue, no matter how unbearable, simply because death is the inevitable end?

I believe that relieving suffering is a duty under the Hippocractic oath that takes precedence over preserving life. For that reason, if at the end a patient is suffering ongoing excruciating pain, the prime consideration should be to alleviate that, even if the treatment may possibly, or even certainly, hasten the inevitable death. At least then there can be a dignified, peaceful and pain-free end to life. Where is the dignity or peace in a long-drawn-out death in agony?

Can we not stop regarding this as a question of “assisted dying” and instead regard it as a humanitarian process of alleviating suffering? Should we not allow whatever level of palliative treatment the degree of suffering requires, and regard the possible hastening of death as a compassionate side-effect? At the very least, we should allow people to put their wish for this in writing and guarantee to honour that wish. At the very least, can we not accept that concession?

This is exactly what I would wish for myself.

P Davidson, Falkirk.


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