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Can doctors help us die well? Physician-ethicist Daniel Sulmasy

Daniel Sulmasy is an internist and an ethicist, and he was a Franciscan friar for 25 years. He continues to practice medicine while teaching at the medical school and the divinity school of the University of Chicago. He has focused much of his research on the ethics of end-of-life decision making. He has served on numerous governmental advisory committees and was appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Problems. His books include The Healer’s Calling (1997), Safe Passage: A Global Spiritual Sourcebook for Care at the End of Life (2013), and Francis the Leper: Faith, Medicine, Theology, and Science (2014).

Has medicine gotten any better at facing up to death and allowing people to die a “good” death?

If you take a long view, the answer is very much yes. Around the middle of the last century, when medicine’s technological prowess exploded, there was suddenly a lot that could be done to prolong a person’s life. The instinct of physicians was to use that new power indiscriminately. And the attitudes of physicians were somewhat paternalistic. They didn’t pay much attention to the preferences of a patient. In a humane but nonetheless paternalistic way, they looked to improve the medical condition and keep patients alive without much regard for the quality of life, the side effects, and the burdens associated with it.