Hospice and Palliative Care in the United States

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By Maia Lauria

I first stumbled upon the issue of palliative care during a particularly hard time in my life. I was twenty years old, and for the first time having to confront the realities of watching a loved one die. Up until then, death had been a decently abstract concept to me. My grandmother had passed away when I was a child, but I was too young to be exposed to any part of the process. My uncle had also passed away when I was a teenager, but due to the suddenness of the death and geographical distance, I did not play a role in the event. I had never attended a funeral, let alone seen a corpse. The case of Monica was very different. For the first time, I became intimately involved in the dying process; and through this, became aware of the workings of the hospice and palliative care system that has become incredibly common throughout the country.

Monica was my mother’s best friend, and a pseudo-mother to my sister and I. In 2007, doctors found a malignant tumor in her colon, leading to multiple surgeries and the administration of rounds of chemotherapy. After some years of remission, the cancer returned in 2011, spreading to more of her internal organs. Once again, different treatments were administered, with waves of optimism and pessimism. Ultimately, in the summer of 2015, after attempting a failed experimental treatment, she was told that there was no more the doctors could do, and that she probably only had a couple more weeks to live. Receiving this news, she opted for in-home hospice care, to be able to spend her last days comfortably with family and friends.

Hospice care is becoming an increasingly common end of life plan in the United States. In the past decade, the number of hospice patients has more than doubled. In 2009, 42 percent of all deaths were under the care of a hospice program.1 According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, hospice care “ involves a team-oriented approach to expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support” to help allow the patient to succumb to death in best way possible.2 The phrase they use is that they are shifting the focus from curing to caring. Typically, this involves a family member serving as the primary caregiver, with members of the hospice staff making regular visits and providing 24 hour on-call assistance.2 Central to hospice care is the idea of palliative care, which makes sure the patient is able to die in the most pain-free and dignified manner.

In Monica’s case, her husband and sons divided the role of primary caregiver, and a hospice nurse came once a day to check in on her and the family. As someone who was at Monica’s home almost permanently for the final week of her life, I witnessed the stress that the role of primary caregiver placed on her husband and sons. This issue especially came to light as Monica’s pain progressed to a point that the dosages of sedatives she required made her lose consciousness. At that point, due to emotions and stress, the eldest son took over most of the care responsibilities. Unable to communicate with his mother, it became his responsibility to gage when she was in pain, based on indications given to him by the hospice nurse. I watched him struggle to decide when she a dosage, afraid on one hand to let her suffer, and on the other to accidentally hasten her death. This struggle led me to reflect on the morals and ethics entwined in the hospice and palliative care process, as well as related issues such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

One of the more controversial aspects of palliative care is what is referred to as palliative sedation, or terminal sedation. Broeckaert, who introduced the term palliative sedation, defines it as “the intentional administration of sedative drugs and combinations required to reduce the consciousness of a terminal patient as much as necessary to adequately relieve one or more refractory symptoms”.3 There have been many concerns about the practice, as the lack of consciousness often results in the patient’s’ inability to continue to ingest food or water. Some critics of the practice have gone so far as to call it slow euthanasia or euthanasia in disguise.4 Broeckaert is quick to point out that the two practices are ethically different because of their intentions. Based on his definition, the intention of palliative sedation is to relieve the refractory symptoms, most commonly pain and nausea, not to kill the patient. In euthanasia, as well as physician-assisted suicide, the explicit intention is to end the patient’s life. As Have states, “sedation is not itself the aim of the intervention but merely a means; the aim or intent is to relieve symptoms”.5 Additionally, studies have found that in most cases, palliative sedation does not hasten death, and the survival rates of patients with palliative sedation and those without do not differ.1

So why does this continue to be an issue discussed? One explanation for this might be that in countries with legal euthanasia, there has been a decrease in the number of euthanasia cases and an increase in cases of palliative sedation.6 Many think this is because physicians feel more comfortable performing the latter, and therefore choose it over the former. While the intentions may be different, they both lead to the same end. As Raus states, “in the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill, Justice O’Connor claimed that there was no need to address the question of legalization of PAS, as patients could legally obtain pain relief to the point of unconsciousness”.7 Intention aside, because of its role as a treatment administered to the terminally ill, it is grouped together with more controversial practices, and presented as a substitute.

This controversy led me to reflect on the ideas of intention and autonomy. I have always been a fervent believer in the power of autonomy, and in relation, the importance of patient’s rights. I believe that a person has the right to control what happens to their life, and to choose their own death if they see fit. The intention to kill that a physician would have to possess in the case of euthanasia or PAS is only given to her from the patient’s intention to be killed. If the patient did not intend to be killed, only then would the physician’s intention to kill be immoral, because the physician is taking control over a life that is not hers. This view might stem from my lack of religious background. I do not believe that a person’s life has worth outside of that person because it was given to them by a deity and I do not believe that one must experience suffering in death in order to truly see the wonders of God. I believe that each person should do as they wish, whether they wish to suffer in death or they wish to end their suffering; their wishes should be respected.

For this reason, I support palliative sedation, euthanasia and PAS in certain cases. However, I do think that it is important that the practices be differentiated. Again, this routes back to the idea of intention and the autonomy of the patient. The patient should decide what they intend to happen to their life. In the case of palliative sedation, the patient is deciding for their pain to be relieved; in the case of euthanasia and PAS, the patient is asking to hasten their death. Because of the difference in intention, palliative sedation cannot fully substitute euthanasia or PAS, or the other way around. The patient should be allowed to choose the intention. As Raus states, “a situation in which a patient requests PAS cannot always be properly addressed by offering sedation instead”.7 If the patient intends to end their life, that should be respected. Palliative sedation shouldn’t force the patient to compromise. If autonomy is to be respected, then the patient should have the right to choose between all of the alternatives. Some, like Callahan, might present the opposite case that if euthanasia or PAS are a quicker and cheaper means to the same solution, they should be favored over palliative sedation.8 Yet again, that is not true if the wishes of the patient are to be relieved of their pain and not to hasten their death. If this is the case, no patient should be forced to concede to euthanasia or PAS, no matter the cost, because it is going against their wishes.

In the case where a terminal patient has not stated their wishes, and is incapable of doing so, palliative care does seem to be the least morally problematic solution. It is still abiding by the medical philosophy of caring when one cannot be cured. The decision of whether or not the patient should also be sedated would fall on whoever has power of attorney over the patient. Regardless, this practice would be favored over euthanasia or PAS, because there is no intention to kill the patient; and therefore, no possibility that the patient is being killed against their wishes. Instead, they are being treated for painful symptoms, until their disease leads to their death. Any other side effect falls under the concept of double-effect. As put by Have, “the principle of double effect states that an intervention that has a foreseen bad outcome can nevertheless be morally permissible provided the intervention is not intrinsically evil, the bad effect is neither intended nor the means for achieving the good effect, and the good effect outweighs the bad effect.”5 Relieving pain is not intrinsically evil; rendering the patient unconscious or hastening their death was not intended, nor was it the means of relieving the pain (providing the sedative was the means); and knowing the patient is relieved of pain outweighs these potential side effect.

For the family members, all of these options might be emotionally difficult to execute. While this emotional response is normal and should be expected, their commitment as primary caregiver should be to respect the wishes of the patient. If their intent matches that of the patient, then morally they have done nothing wrong, as they are simply acting as an agent for the wishes of the patient. In Monica’s case, I believe her eldest son performed his moral duty to his mother. Monica had very explicit wishes for the end of her life. She chose to not be sedated until it was absolutely necessary, so that she could spend time with those she loved. Eventually, as she knew would happen, she was sedated to the point of unconsciousness, as the only means to relieve her suffering. This was an incredibly hard time for everyone, as it was, in a way, the final goodbye. While her son struggled with the idea that the dosages he was giving her could potentially lead to her death, he was morally correct in administering them. The intention was to sedate Monica in order to alleviate her pain, not to hasten her death. He fulfilled her wishes to rid herself of pain until one morning she passed away peacefully.

It’s taken me a long time to fully process Monica’s death. It was difficult to think of how the cancer had consumed her body. It has, however, led me to have a stronger stance on patient’s rights and autonomy. The cancer robbed Monica, the least she was due was to have control over her last days on earth. While the topic of hospice and palliative sedation is emotionally difficult, I think autonomy makes a simple ethical case, especially in situations like Monica’s. She wished to succumb to her illness without pain, that was her explicit intention. Palliative sedation matched that intention. I stand by the idea that had she wanted to hasten her death, either by euthanasia or PAS, it should have been her right to do so too. The physician’s intentions should match the patient’s wishes. That is the patient’s right.

Maia Lauria ’17, a graduate of  Fordham College Rose Hill, majored in Integrative Neuroscience and was awarded third place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2017 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.


1. Dennis, Jeanne. “The Ethics of Hospice Care.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

2. “Palliative Care.” National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

3. Broeckaert, Bert. “Palliative Sedation, Physician-Assisted Suicide, and Euthanasia: Same, Same but Different ?” The American Journal of Bioethics 11.6 (2011): 62-64. EBSCO. Web.

4. Claessens, P., J. Menten, P. Schotsmans, and B. Broeckaert. “Level of Consciousness in Dying Patients. The Role of Palliative Sedation: A Longitudinal Prospective Study.” American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine 29.3 (2011): 195-200. Web.

5. Have, Henk Ten, and Jos V.m. Welie. “Palliative Sedation Versus Euthanasia: An Ethical Assessment.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 47.1 (2014): 123-36. Web.

6. Gordijn, Bert, and Rien Janssens. “Euthanasia and Palliative Care in the Netherlands: An Analysis of the Latest Developments.” Health Care Analysis 12.3 (2004): 195-207. Web.

7. Raus, Kasper, et al. “Is Continuous Sedation at the End of Life an Ethically Preferable Alternative to Physician-Assisted Suicide?.” The American Journal of Bioethics: AJOB, vol. 11, no. 6, June 2011, pp. 32-40. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15265161.2011.577510.

8. Callahan, Daniel. “When Self-Determination Runs Amok.” The Hastings Center Report 22.2 (1992): 52. Web.

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