Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 04, 2018

The Afterlife

British physician and commentator Margaret McCartney discusses the Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard cases in this week's BMJ. She touches upon, but doesn't try to go too deeply, into the role of religion in these disputes.

Systematic studies have found that deeply religious people -- or at least Christians, since the studies I am aware of were done in the U.S. where that's the predominant sect -- are more likely to insist on continued medical intervention with family members after doctors have concluded that further treatment is futile. And indeed, it is Catholic and right wing evangelical Christians who show up as political activists when one of these cases is highly publicized. Catholic clergy organized demonstrations to keep Terry Schiavo on life support, and the pope always seems compelled to weigh in on these situations.

Superficially, this seems odd. One of the evident functions of Christian doctrine is to facilitate acceptance of death. You get to go to heaven and hang out with your ancestors, and bask in the glory of God. Or you go to the lake of fire. Either way, you have it coming to you.

But this doesn't seem to work. Devout Christians actually seem to fear and deny the reality of death more than less religious and non-religious people. A glib explanation is reverse causation: people who have a harder time accepting death are more prone to seize on religious denial of its reality, but at heart they don't really believe that so they still insist on futile measure to prolong even the appearance of life.

The leaders of these sects need to stop promoting irrationality. Until recent decades, obviously, it was impossible to keep the tissues of brain dead people perfused with oxygen so we didn't have this problem. Whatever Jesus may have thought about death in 30 A.D. still pretty much applied. But now we need to decide when the time has come to pull the plug, and we need to decide as a society. We can't make it an individual family decision because that would give some people an unlimited claim on societal resources and take needed care away from people who could actually benefit.

Somebody needs to have a conversation with the pope.

5 comments:

Mark P said...

Maybe if some of those people — like maybe the pope — had to take care of the physical needs of some artificially-maintained dead people, they might rethink it. As long as the burden falls on someone else, it’s easy to argue for continuing such measures.

Gay Boy Bob said...

But now we need to decide when the time has come to pull the plug, and we need to decide as a society.

Society has pretty much already made the decision that the legal guardian, or a trusted friend or relative with a medical power of attorney, will make these decisions, not the self-interested state. This divergence by the British state is why the Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans cases are in the news.

These same financial resource arguments were made at one time against the mentally and physically disabled who were also deemed by "forward thinkers" to be a burden on the rest of us. I doubt if young Stephen Hawking would have survived one of those proposed death panels.

I'd also like to point out that the Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans cases were to be both privately funded for the additional medical services in question. There really is no financial-burden-of-the-public-system argument for these cases like the one that has been made here.

Cervantes said...

As usual, every single thing you write is false and idiotic. Society has not made that decision. Courts in the United States order life support terminated against the wishes of next of kin frequently. Stephen Hawking said explicitly that he was very grateful for the National Health Service, without which he could not have survived. There are not "death panels" in Britain. The people in question are not disabled. They are already dead. Apparently you do not understand the difference.

Gay Boy Bob said...


1)If the state frequently terminated patients over the objections of legal guardians such as parents or next of kin, the Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans stories would not be BIG news.

2) While you may well be correct in these particular cases these kids didn't have much of a chance of recovery, the real issue for me is the looming danger of handing over the decision making who's worthy and who's not to the state.

3) You did not address how the state forcing Alfie Evans to die at the hospital instead of at home with his family was in the best interest of the child. Nor did you address the issue of not allowing other physicians to try cutting edge care for him when no state resources were involved.

I suspect we will never agree, but I'm looking at a larger picture and that is the creeping state control over the lives of its subjects using arguments such as these.

Maybe if I were a socialist and believed that the state had all the answers and can solve most of society's problems if we only turn over more control over our lives, I'd be more inclined to join the Borg.

Don Quixote said...

the "Borg" ... you are such an idiot, GBB. The problem when you give someone sassy lip is you have no brains or balls to back it up. You just sound stupid. Which you are.