Magazine article The Human Life Review

The Birth of Hospice

Magazine article The Human Life Review

The Birth of Hospice

Article excerpt

Until not so long ago, in this country and throughout the West, religious voices were deemed an essential element in the public square. Indeed, as difficult as it may be for those born after 1960 to believe, the opinions of people motivated by religious values were once at the forefront of public-policy formation. What "the churches" thought often made the difference between failure and success for those seeking to get a particular idea enacted into law.

Today, while most religious organizations still offer their opinions on a wide range of issues, they generally have limited impact. The primary reason for this is the widespread acceptance of the attitude succinctly summarized by the prominent philosopher Dan Brock in the Hastings Center Report: "In a pluralistic society like our own, with a strong commitment to freedom of religion, public policy should not be grounded in religious beliefs which many in that society reject."

At the very least this attitude is undemocratic, for it silences the many to protect the sensitivities of the few, transforming the public square into a virtual private enclave. As James W. Walters, professor of Ethical Studies at Loma Linda University, puts it, "Society's most fundamental moral views are rooted in religion .... Ninety percent of the population identifies with the Judeo-Christian tradition." More significantly, however, religious values have been an essential part of the motivation behind the most important social movements in our country's history: abolition, the civil rights movement, and the effort to end child labor, to mention just a few. To remove religious values from the recipe of public policy is akin to leaving most of the ingredients out of what should be a thick, hearty soup: Not only does it ruin the taste, but it strips the broth of much of its nutrition.

One case in point, in which an instance of religious belief influenced secular ethics and public policy in a way that few people could object to, is the development of the modern hospice movement. Hospice care is now recognized as valid by Medicare, Medicaid, and most health-insurance providers. It is a tale rarely told, but the hospice movement owes its existence to the deeply held religious values of its British founder, Dame Cicely Saunders.

Dame Cicely was a medical social worker in a London hospital in the years immediately following World War II. She was also a devout Anglican. In the course of her duties, Saunders met a Jewish emigre named David Tasma, who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto, only to lie dying at the age of 40 in a London hospital. Believing she had a religious duty to visit the sick and knowing that Tasma was alone in the world, Saunders made a special point to spend time with him every day. Their friendship changed our world.

Saunders was already well aware that a nearly universal problem in care for the dying was uneven pain control, causing much unnecessary misery. As she spoke with Tasma about his impending death, she had an epiphany. As she told me when I met her fifty years later, "I realized that we needed not only better pain control but better overall care. People needed the space to be themselves. I coined the term `total pain' from my understanding that dying people have physical, spiritual, psychological, and social pain that must be treated. I have been working on that ever since." (Tasma left Saunders L500 to begin her work, telling her, "I will be a window in your home." Saunders told me, her eyes filling with tears, "It took me 19 years to build the home around that window.")

Saunders's epiphany was not rational or secular, but spiritual. Her work was a "personal calling, underpinned by a powerful religious commitment," wrote David Clark, an English medical school professor of palliative care and Saunders's biographer, to whom she has entrusted the organization of her archives. So strong was Saunders's faith in what she perceived as her divine call that she began volunteering after work as a nurse at homes for the dying. …

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