Human Exceptionalism

World’s Destitute Often Die in Agony

One of Dame Cecily Saunders’ few regrets, the great medical humanitarian told me when I interviewed her for my book Culture of Death, was that hospice–which she pioneered–was not widely available in the developing world. Too many dying poor people continue to die in agony, she told me, characterizing the situation as a “tragedy.” If only she had more time, the then octogenarian said sadly. Bringing hospice to the world’s poor would be her work’s focus.

Saunders died in 2005 (here is my tribute to her in the Weekly Standard.) Alas, things have apparently not improved since. From, “Dying Without Morphine,” by Ronald Piana in the New York Times:

IMAGINE watching a loved one moaning in pain, curled into a fetal ball, pleading for relief. Then imagine that his or her pain could be relieved by an inexpensive drug, but the drug was unavailable. Each day, about six million terminal cancer patients around the world suffer that fate because they do not have access to morphine, the gold standard of cancer pain control. The World Health Organization has stated that access to pain treatment, including morphine, is an essential human right.

I don’t like every good public policy being elevated into a “right.” There is too much of that. I mean, if everything good and laudable is a “right,” the very concept loses its potency. And it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal. But human exceptionalism certainly dictates that we have a duty to remedy this awful situation.

Enough semantics. More from the piece:

If it were just about the money, the solution — subsidized access — would be obvious. However, the issue is complicated by a dizzying array of bureaucratic hurdles, cultural biases and the chilling effect of the international war on drugs, which can be traced back to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that standardized international regulation of narcotics.

Driven by its lopsided concern over the illicit use of opioids, a class of drugs that includes heroin, the Single Convention drove countless, onerous country-level restrictions on morphine use, for fear that it would be abused.

I am sure that is true, and Piana gives examples of success stories, such as in Uganda.

But his remedy seems incomplete. The best way to overcome these issues is promote prosperity in these countries–not dependency. That means fostering economic growth, expanding electrification using whatever means are at hand, and reforming cultures to eradicate corruption and value the rule of law. 

That’s difficult these days, what with sectarian chaos, the radical environmental movement’s inhumane war on humans that seeks to hobble economies in the name of “saving the planet,” and the general lack of access to sophisticated medical care in many of these countries.

Good for Piana for pricking our consciences. Bringing palliation to the poorest among us is a very worthy cause.

It should remind those of us in the prosperous West that the quality of life we enjoy did not arise by accident.


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