Friday, September 23, 2011

UN debates the Right to Health of Older Persons

The Human Rights Council last week debated a report on the right to health of older persons titled “Thematic study on the realization of the right to health of older persons”, prepared by Anand Grover the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,

Grover under the heading of palliative care says,

The Special Rapporteur is of the view that a holistic approach to health should also
address the process of dying. While this report does not consider issues of patient autonomy in respect of deciding to end life, it is nonetheless necessary to ensure that patients be able to make autonomous, informed decisions regarding the quality of health during the process of dying. That includes choices about access to adequate pain relief and other necessary interventions, location of death, and the ability to refuse treatment designed to prolong life when it is not desired by the patient. This requires clear, candid and non-judgmental discussion with medical practitioners, who should be adequately trained to deal with these delicate issues in order to enable older persons to “die with dignity”, as required from a human rights prospective.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN in Geneva  took “strong exception” to this indirect reference to assisted suicide despite what he termed the agreement of the Holy See with other aspects of the report.

Archbishop Tomasi addressing the report  at the 18th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, told the meeting, 

“We strongly believe that life is a gift that no person has the so-called ‘right’ to end, that death is the culmination of a natural process and no person, even the elderly or suffering person himself or herself, is entitled to cause or hasten the natural process of dying through biomedical or any other means"

Archbishop Tomasi’s concern focused on the reference to “issues of patient autonomy in respect of deciding to end life,” though he acknowledged that Grover had not dealt specifically with the issue “in the context of the present report.”

The archbishop said that the Church exhorts scientists and doctors to research prevention and treatment of illnesses linked to old age without ever bending to “the temptation to have recourse to practices that shorten the life of the aged and sick, practices that would turn out to be, in fact, forms of euthanasia.”

He said the Catholic Church sees the growing number of aging persons as a “blessing” rather than “a burden on society.” The Church sponsors 15,448 homes for the aged, chronically ill and handicapped persons around the world.

Irrespective of his concerns regarding the report reference to “deciding to end life,” Archbishop Tomasi was in agreement with other aspects of the report. He concurred with Grover that states should allocate more resources for geriatric care and train health personnel to treat elderly patients in “an appropriate, considerate and non-discriminatory manner.” Archbishop Tomasi also stressed the need to protect frail elderly persons from physical and emotional abuse by caregivers or family members