March 20, 2009
According to a new study, terminally-ill cancer patients who “drew comfort from religion” don’t want to die if they don’t have to. Well, no surprise. But, says the Times, they’re less eager to die than people who don’t draw “comfort from religion.”
Well that’s interesting, perhaps, but there is a more important as well as more troubling aspect to the story that’s going unnoticed.
The study appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston used questionnaires and interviews “to assess the level of reliance on religious faith for comfort” of 345 terminally-ill patients.
The “vast majority” of the patients–some 90 percent of those who were religious and 97 percent of those who were not–did not want “heroic measures,” such as mechanical ventilators or CPR, to be used in their cases.
Based on that seven percentage-point difference the New York Times proclaimed “Religious Belief Linked to Desire for Aggressive Treatment in Terminal Patients.” Please.
Do a little more math and you will realize that sweeping generalizations like “far more likely to seek aggressive, life-prolonging care” are based on the responses of approximately 25 people.
The researchers acknowledged that the study didn’t explore why this small handful of religious patients sought “extensive end-of-life care.” That didn’t stop them from speculating anyway. One of the study’s authors disabused Times’ readers of the idea that “spiritual patients are more likely to say their lives are in God’s hands.”
Instead, she told the Times, “to religious people, life is sacred and sanctified . . . they feel it’s their duty and obligation to stay alive as long as possible.”
That has it backwards: if 90 percent of the religious people in the study refused heroic measures, then it’s more accurate to say that they don’t feel such an obligation – possibly because they believe that their lives are in God’s hands.
If all that was going on here was yet another mis-characterization of the faithful, it wouldn’t matter. But the Times let its readers know why they should care: cost.
The Times noted that Medicare “spends about one-third of its budget on people who are in the last year of life, and much of that on patients at the very end of life.” The study noted that the religious patients “were less likely to have completed advance medical directives, such as a living will or do-not-resuscitate order.”
Anything, including religious belief, that might motivate people to seek “aggressive treatment” toward the end of life, costs money. Ominously, Wesley J. Smith has documented the “growing utilitarian emphasis in medicine,” in which saving money increasingly takes precedence over “doing right by suffering patients.”
Little wonder, then, that what amounts to a statistical blip becomes the stuff of headlines. Religion can be a problem if it makes people want to stay alive longer. As we nationalize healthcare, as Smith warns, the sick and infirm will soon be told they should do the patriotic thing: go quietly.
Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.