December 15, 2019

Vatican to host interfaith meeting on end-of-life issues

Helping society move from a throwaway culture to “one that cares” is the goal of a Dec. 11-12 conference being co-organized by the Vatican.

“The sick and the elderly are considered people who have nothing left to offer,” said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life.

“They are not productive, they are not useful, they constitute a weight for our societies that have efficiency as the absolute goal. This is a challenge denounced by Pope Francis: The throwaway culture.”

Titled “Religion and Medical Ethics Symposium: Palliative Care and Mental Health of the Elderly,” the event will have the participation of 250 people from all over the world.

The conference is being co-hosted by Qatar’s World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), created in 2012, with the support of the BMJ, the UK’s most prominent medical journal.

“The interfaith nature of this event, and the involvement of experts from both faith and medical backgrounds, will provide a priceless opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the very real ethical dilemmas experienced by healthcare practitioners from different spiritual backgrounds across our world when dealing with these sensitive and yes, difficult subjects,” said Dr. Sultana Afdhal, Chief Executive Officer of WISH.

Afdhal, Paglia and BMJ executive editor Dr. Kamran Abbasi spoke to journalists about the conference on Tuesday.

Although the Catholic Church is both in favor of palliative care and against assisted suicide and euthanasia, Afdhal said Islam doesn’t have one singular position; though in Qatar, a fatwa was introduced in 1999 regarding a patient’s right to choose not to be resuscitated.

According to Paglia, what brings all three organizations together is the goal of creating a “culture of palliative care,” both to respond to “the temptation that comes from euthanasia and assisted suicide, but above all, to grow a culture of care that is able to offer loving care up until death.”

The prelate noted that, on the one hand, society is “growing old” and on the other hand, there’s a “proliferation of the culture of euthanasia” because terminally ill patients and the elderly are considered disposable in a world that is “centered on profit and economy, and healthcare often cedes to a mentality of accountants.”

Even when a patient is terminally ill, Paglia argued, medicine can still “care” for the human person, even when it can’t “heal it.”

Afdhal, who flew in from Qatar for the symposium, said that she is convinced the sharing of knowledge between religions and medical healthcare experts can enrich both, as “we will all gain” from understanding how faiths respond to these issues.

“There are Christians in Qatar, and there are Muslims outside of our country,” she said.

The dialogue, she said, can help build a “common ground,” that will help find more effective ways to “bridge differences in ethical approaches based on faith, whether actual or perceived.”

The actual alleviation of suffering, she said, requires a willingness to consider a person’s spiritual needs, as well as their physical and mental ones.

Abbasi said that the conference is in line with the core values of the BMJ: Being transparent, open and trusted; patient-centered; evidence-based; and, more broadly, promoting a healthier world.

When it comes to caring for the elderly and the terminally ill, he said, religious beliefs and evidence must work in harmony to help patients and families face challenges that come with old age and disease.

At a moment of “global discord, disharmony and danger,” Abbasi said, “it is symbolic that we are gathering here at the Vatican to show the power of people from all faiths and backgrounds in coming together to solve the world’s problems.”

Afdhal acknowledged participants would be discussing some “very emotive matters” during the two-day conference, such as suicide among older members of society and the end of life care for children.

“I realize these will be very difficult areas for us to debate. However, it is both right and important that we do not shy away from these topics, and I believe our discussions can only benefit those who are affected and afflicted by such issues,” she said.