One of the unfortunate side effects of graduate studies in biomedical ethics is that you find humor in things that are decidedly not funny. Such was the case when I heard Dr. Bill Pope interviewed on CBC’s The Current. The head of Manitoba’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Pope was commenting on the College’s new statement on withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. When asked if the statement addressed some of the cultural and religious issues involved in end of life decision-making, Dr. Pope replied:
“This is why we used strictly clinical criteria.”
I know this is, strictly speaking, not funny.
But one must be exceptionally naive or willfully blind to believe that clinical observations can, in and of themselves, guide a decision to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment. Clinical criteria don’t have opinions, which is why we need physicians to interpret them. Something informs the decision on where the buck stops, things like culture, religion (including atheism), economics and personal preferences. Clinical information needs interpretation and I am more concerned about a physician who believes that she has no biases than about one who comes out clearly as a [fill in the blank].
What worries me most about Dr. Pope’s comment is not that people will be taken off life support. Death is, after all, a part of life. What worries me is that he wraps himself in a flag of moral neutrality. Deciding that a practice – abortion, withdrawal of life support, euthanasia – is morally neutral is not a neutral decision.