CHICAGO – It’s a situation too agonizing to contemplate – a child dying and in pain. Now a small but provocative study suggests that doctors may be giving fatal morphine doses to a few children dying of cancer, to end their suffering at their parents’ request.
A handful of parents told researchers that they had asked doctors to hasten their children’s deaths – and that doctors complied, using high doses of the painkiller.
The lead author of the study and several other physicians said they doubt doctors are engaged in active mercy killing. Instead, they speculate the parents interviewed for the study mistakenly believed that doctors had followed their wishes.
The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and most other doctor groups oppose mercy-killing but say withholding life-prolonging treatment for dying patients can be ethical.
Dr. Douglas Diekema, a medical ethicist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, called the results unsurprising. “I have no doubt that in a small number of cases, some physicians might cooperate with a parent’s desire to see a child’s suffering ended. This might include giving a drug for sedation or pain control that also suppresses the drive to breathe.”
“Most physicians don’t intentionally push that drug to the point of stopping a child’s breathing, but some may be comfortable not intervening if a child stops breathing in the course of treating him or her for discomfort,” Diekema said.
The study, published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was based on interviews with parents of 141 children who had died of cancer.