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Don’t just blame religion

Don’t just blame religion

Andrew Brown, in The Guardian, looks at the bigger picture when parents refuse medical treatment for their children and the children die. Although Brown is referring to African spirituality – this is common to many spiritual traditions in the US and elsewhere.:

Some weeks ago I wrote about the problem of children being ‘tortured’ to death in high-tech hospitals because their religious parents won’t agree to let them die. This was brought out by a piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics, co-authored by two doctors at Great Ormond Street and the hospital’s Anglican chaplain.

These decisions must quite frequently be made: the paper mentions that 70% of the children who die in Great Ormond Street hospital intensive care unit do so as a result of the withdrawal of medical treatment. Only 25% do so while efforts at resuscitation are under way. The cases in which parents object are obviously a very small minority, and those where the objections are both religious and carried to the point of an argument in court are even smaller: six cases in three years, out of a total of 290 deaths.

One thing that stands out is that there is a pretty complete breakdown of relations with specifically African Christian parents: “In the Christian groups who held fervent or fundamentalist views, the parents did not engage in exploration of their religious beliefs with hospital chaplains and no religious community leaders were available to attend meetings to help discuss or reconcile the differences.”

So I talked about this with Yemi Adedeji, from the Evangelical Alliance, a Nigerian pentecostalist now ordained into the Church of England, who wanted to explain the African view of spirituality.

Brown concludes:

The central question, then, becomes one of discernment. The question of miracles is reframed to become “What does God want? What is God saying?” Once this is treated as a real question, one consequence is that the whole community can answer it. And it seems to be there that the problem arises with hospitals. “Most of the African pentecostal churches operate from a patriarchal mode, and there it is like, whatever the leader says, whether right or wrong, is what the parents will follow. If the leader says ‘I think the child will live’ that’s what the parents will believe.”

The obvious answer, then, is for the hospital to link up with the parents’ pastors and discuss the matter that way. But what happens when the pastor does not want to talk?

Read more here.

Have you dealt with this as a chaplain or working in hospitals?


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Indeed, I dealt with a similar situation quite recently. The patient was not a child, but in other ways, the issues were similar. While I cannot give details about patient or family, I can say that two things made for good communication. The first was simply to let stories be told. Listening to stories helped me understand the patient and the family. The second was to realize that for the family the critical issue was discernment of God’s will. The situation was not about rejecting the medical information. Rather, it was to see the medical information as meaningful but not final. Family and I accepted together that God’s will could be final in the face of the medical information. I think the most important thing I had to offer was my acceptance. The most important thing I had to share was my observation that “The question of discernment is not ‘What does God want me to do,’ but, ‘What does God want me to do now?'” Together we acknowledged what God could do, and then began looking to see what God was doing, even as we watched.

Marshall Scott

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