Vatican speaker says palliative care is a ‘revolutionary endeavor’

Hannah Brockhaus   By Hannah Brockhaus for CNA


null / Lighthunter via Shutterstock.

Vatican City, Feb 16, 2022 / 08:30 am (CNA).

As euthanasia and assisted suicide spread across Europe, doctors are promoting life-affirming palliative care with the Vatican’s support.

“The first great value is valuing life,” Italian physician Adriana Turriziani told CNA last week.

“I would call palliative care a revolutionary endeavor, in a positive sense,” said the palliative care doctor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome.

Christopher Ostgathe, president of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC), told CNA that “the core question” is the growing legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, compared with limited access to palliative care.

He pointed to countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and more recently Spain, where voluntary euthanasia is legal. In Switzerland, he added, “physician-assisted suicide is part of the healthcare system in that country.”

In Italy, where there have been campaigns to decriminalize assisted suicide, a request for a national vote on the topic was found “inadmissible” by the Italian court on Feb. 15. Meanwhile, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies is debating a bill that could also legalize assisted suicide.

“In parallel, we see that in many countries palliative care is evolving, but … is still very hard to access for patients, or there is even no access to palliative care for many patients,” Ostgathe said.

In a separate interview with EWTN News Nightly, the German professor said that 86% of people in need of palliative care worldwide do not have access to it.

This is especially true outside of rich Western countries, he told CNA.

The effect, he said, is that “in a society where you have the offer to have a shortcut to death, there tends to be more willingness then to take that shortcut.”

Ostgathe said that one of the EAPC’s aims was to show that “there is a possibility to help those patients to really achieve that they have a life worth living, and they would miss [it] if they take that shortcut.”

Turriziani and Ostgathe were speakers at a Vatican-hosted webinar on Feb. 9-11 on the topic of palliative care. The international event was organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Turriziani said that the Vatican’s efforts “to put a sharp focus on palliative care in the world and in Italy is a great opportunity for us.”

Ostgathe called it “instrumental” that Pope Francis often speaks about the topic, which is often misunderstood.

“What is palliative care? Just prolonging his suffering? No, it’s pronouncing life,” he said.

“It is fundamental to know what palliative care is, what it offers, what are the essential clinical services,” Turriziani explained, and that it has “the possibility to choose the place of care in the context in which the patient wants: care at home, care in the hospital… in hospice.”

Both professionals noted that, contrary to what some people might think, palliative care is not only for those close to death.

“Palliative care is something that is now integrated much earlier,” Ostgathe said. “Sometimes we have patients and care for them for years… it’s not only something for this very short period at the end of life.”

“We have good evidence that if it can be integrated early — for example, when a disease becomes incurable and patients sometimes have still a long life ahead of them — that symptoms are better controlled, patients are much more confident… they can stay longer at home,” he said.

Italian physician Adriana Turriziani. Screenshot from MedicinaInformazione YouTube channel.
Italian physician Adriana Turriziani. Screenshot from MedicinaInformazione YouTube channel.

Turriziani noted that one of the beautiful things about palliative care is that the patient is followed step by step, every day, by a multidisciplinary team. They can be accommodated in all their needs: psychological, spiritual, social, and physical.

Palliative care sees the whole person, and not just a set of symptoms, the physician said. “These are principles of palliative care which are also within our Catholic culture.”

“So that is palliative care, that is, the responsibility of a society not to offer a quick death, but to take care of those weak and dependent patients,” Ostgathe commented. “That is really the focus of our societal responsibility.”

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