Three faiths face death with meaning

  • April 3, 2004
TORONTO - Friendly volunteers checked bags. Police hovered discreetly at the back of the room. After weeks of spray-painted swastikas and arson, everybody expected the security and nobody talked about it.

Recent hate crimes wouldn't stop about 300 Muslims, Jews and Catholics from gathering at Beth Tikvah Synagogue to listen to ethicists and doctors speak about how to care for their dying parents.
Most of them stayed till 10:30 on a Wednesday night.

The conference on ethical issues in end-of-life care brought Muslim, Catholic and Jewish perspectives to questions of medical ethics. Hazel Markwell, medical ethicist for St. Michael's Hospital, St. Joseph's Healthcare Centre and Providence Healthcare, Dr. Michael Gordon, head of geriatrics at Baycrest Centre, and University Health Network gerontologist Dr. Shabbir Alibhai each presented a summary of their religious principles for helping dying patients and their families March 31.

The audience mixed women in hijabs (traditional Muslim headscarves), men in kippah or yarmulke (traditional head covering for Jewish men) and silver crosses around dozens of necks.

"If those who committed acts like that thought it would drive the faith communities apart, they will find they are completely and totally wrong," said Canadian Council of Churches executive director Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton. "This (ethics conference) is also a witness to that kind of solidarity and support."

The three experts found common ground in talking about the value of human life.

"The first and almost only criteria is sacredness of human life," said Alibhai.

"Human life is beyond human evaluation," said Markwell.

"The obligation to heal is essential," said Gordon.

In fact, there were few differences in the conclusions the bioethicists drew in facing three clinical case scenarios, though the reasons they gave diverged.

The three panelists drew sharp distinctions between religious approaches to ethical issues and the standard non-religious criteria. Where medical school ethics classes stress patient rights and individual autonomy, all three religious traditions stress duties and community.

The goal for doctors and nurses treating a dying patient should be to help make death meaningful for the individual, their family and community, said Markwell.

"Dying is more than a medical event," she said.

'You have these people talking about sanctity of life and others about the quality of life," said Gordon. "You might as well be talking two languages."

"Our bodies are a trust, not a gift," said Alibhai. "At the end of the day, that trust must be returned to God."

People need to think about medical ethics issues in the context of their religion, said Hamilton.

"In all faith traditions we all face this," she said. "We're talking about something our society likes to pretend it's not going to talk about."

The religious medical ethics conference was an important witness to a society that privatizes religion, Hamilton said.

"Those speakers talked about spirituality and faith as such an important part of being ill and/or dying," she said.

"They were very clear that (religion) often gets overlooked, as if that somehow was not important. And yet, those of us of the faith traditions know it's most important."

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