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The religious beliefs of doctors strongly influence the decisions they make when caring for terminally ill patients, according to research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Dr. Clive Seale, a professor at the Centre for Health Sciences, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, conducted a postal survey of 3733 UK medical practitioners, 2923 of whom reported on the care of their last patient who died.

Dr. Seale found that “doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death, having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.”

Many of the doctors surveyed were specialists in geriatrics or palliative care, though doctors in other specialties were included in the study.

Significantly, the report stated that “doctors in ‘other hospital’ specialities” were “almost 10 times as likely to report this (decisions taken with some intent to end life) when compared with palliative medicine specialists, regardless of religious faith.”

A BBC report released last year said that the use of continuous deep sedation, also known as “terminal sedation” is becoming more common in the UK and may be the way physicians are skirting the law prohibiting direct euthanasia.

BBC News health correspondent Adam Brimelow said that 16.5 percent of all deaths in the UK are associated with continuous deep sedation, a number twice that of Belgium and the Netherlands, both of which have legalized direct euthanasia.

Alex Schadenberg, the director of Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, has said that continuous deep sedation can be used ethically in cases of dying patients to alleviate intractable pain, such as neuropathic pain that does not respond to morphine. The ethics, however, depends upon the situation and the intention, he said.

“It’s important to make the distinction between what we do with someone who is nearing death and someone who is in pain but not dying.” In some cases, he said, patients who are not dying but may be suffering are put into deep sedation, and then dehydrated to death – a use that is always unethical.

“[Deep sedation] can be a backdoor route to euthanasia if it is used unethically,” he said. “The issue is intention. The intention must be the alleviation of pain and suffering. Even a long-term sedation can be ethical as long as the person is not being dehydrated to death. A good palliative care physician won’t use the technique very often.”

An abstract of Dr. Seale’s research is available here.

Related: British Doctors Practising “Slow” Euthanasia through Deep Sedation: BBC Report

Britain Already Has a “Government Policy of Silent Euthanasia”: Anti-Euthanasia Activists

Britain’s Pathway to Euthanasia – NHS Protocols for Dehydrating Disabled Patients to Death
[August 30, 2010, T. M. Baklinski, LONDON, ]