'Palliative care is a human right' - symposium at the Vatican challenges 'culture of euthanasia'

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Sultana Afdhal, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Health, during a symposium at the Vatican to discuss faith and ethical considerations around palliative care and care of the elderly.(Photo: WISH)

A symposium taking place at the Vatican has challenged society to walk side by side with the weak, the ill and the elderly in the face of a growing "culture of euthanasia".

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that the "terminally ill and elderly, especially those affected by mental health issues, are being pushed to the margins of society" as if "they have nothing more to offer, they are not necessary, they are a burden on society".

"This is a cruel society," he said.

The Archbishop made the comments in an address in Italian to open a two-day symposium on religion and medical ethics at the Vatican organised by Qatar's World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), the British Journal of Medical Ethics, and the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Speaking through a translator, he quoted the words of Pope Francis in calling for an end to a "culture of waste" and a "culture of neglect" around the care of the weakest as he challenged medical professionals and ethicists at the symposium to refuse the "temptation to take shortcuts" through practices like euthanasia and assisted suicide.

"We need to promote a culture of care, a culture of accompaniment, a culture of palliative care everywhere in the world," he said.

"It is fundamental to develop a culture of care that allows us to offer love until the time of death."

While pro-euthanasia campaigners have championed the so-called 'right to die', Archbishop Paglia countered this notion by saying that every man and every woman had a right to live in the human family.

"Palliative care is a human right," he said.

He went on to call for a renewed understanding of medicine that does not regard it as a failure if a patient cannot be healed.

"It is not true that there is nothing more to do," he said.

"Presence is important, accompanying is important, relieving people from suffering, showing love, holding the person's hand," he said.

He went on to warn that the elderly were "particularly exposed to the risks" of a society increasingly open to euthanasia, at a time when the population of Western countries is increasingly ageing.

"We the elderly, we are too many, too expensive, and we become a burden. They ask us to go away," he said.

"It is fundamental to rediscover the culture of accompaniment until the time of death."

The symposium also heard from Catholic palliative care specialist Professor Carlos Centeno, who sought to reclaim the language of "dignity" in dying from pro-euthanasia campaigners who argue that assisted suicide offers this for the terminally ill.

"We are in favour of a death with dignity. But is dignity to choose the moment of death? For Christians, no," he said.

"For Christians it is to affirm that natural moment of death. For Christians, the dignity is in the person; it is intrinsic. It cannot be taken."

He argued, though, that the dignity of the terminally ill could be compromised if they were not well cared for, if their symptoms were not managed properly, or if the person felt alone in their suffering.

He said that from his own experience of working in palliative care, "Many times, they [the terminally ill] want to live because they are being cared for."

He said that the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man has been robbed and left to die, offered an important lesson in how society should care for those who are weak, poor or close to death.

"Dignity is a truly Christian value," he said. "We Christians recognise the dignity in every human being, always."

Sultana Afdhal, WISH CEO, said that interfaith dialogue around these issues could lead to a more holistic understanding of care "that considers a person's spiritual needs as well as their physical and mental needs".

"Interfaith and medical interdisciplinary dialogue about palliative care and the mental health of older members in our community is essential in helping to establish a common ground to find more effective ways to bridge differences in faith-based ethical approaches," she said.