Religion & Science: Bridging the Gap

By Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe | Commonweal, January 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

Religion & Science: Bridging the Gap


Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe, Commonweal


From the Terri Schiavo controversy to the stem-cell debate to the conflict over intelligent design, 2005 was rife with contentious issues that portrayed religion and science as wholly separate and competing realms of thought and experience.

Two stories challenge that characterization. In each, religious belief has prompted empirical research, and empirical research has informed religious belief. More important, the creative interplay between religion and science helped to shape consensus among partisans on opposite sides of the debate.

The first story concerns Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Catholic Church fought the 1994 ballot measure that put the law on the books, and once it took effect, the church prohibited its hospitals from providing lethal medication to terminally ill patients. But it did more than oppose the law. Catholic hospitals, including Providence Health System, the largest provider in Oregon, led the way in a movement for better end-of-life care, including more effective pain and symptom management, spiritual counseling, family support, and patient involvement in care decisions. (Subsequently, a national survey of nearly four thousand hospitals reported that Catholic hospitals were far ahead of other religious, for-profit, and publicly owned hospitals in providing advanced therapies for the terminally ill).

Meanwhile, researchers at the Oregon Health Science University, who had nothing to do with the Catholic Church, were discovering, through their own surveys, that people who chose physician-assisted suicide did so out of fear of pain, loss of autonomy, loss of dignity, and worries about burdening their families. The Catholic model, which offered a medically sound approach to dealing with these concerns, appealed to many medical professionals as a better way to care for dying patients than writing prescriptions for lethal doses of barbiturates. As Dr. Linda Ganzini, a professor at the Oregon Health Science University who surveyed physicians, noted in an interview on National Public Radio: "it was the Catholic hospitals who led the charge because, for them, the best way not to have to worry about a patient requesting assisted suicide was to have very comprehensive end-of-life care. And we were surprised when we surveyed physicians how seriously they took it. And interestingly, they found care of dying patients more emotionally and intellectually satisfying than they had in previous years." Thus, whether the Oregon law stays or goes, the trend among health professionals has shifted in the direction of improving the care of the dying rather than championing physician-assisted suicide.

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