Bioethics Blogs

Politics of Pain: Investigating the Ethics of Palliative Care as a Global Human Right

by Alix Masters

Within the last decade, strides have been made in the field of global health policy to extend the reaches of palliative care universally.  In 2014, the World Health Organization formally declared palliative care a global human right.[1] This development in global health policy is a positive one when we consider the medical politics of pain relief across racial difference.  Both in the United States and abroad, there is a long medical history of discriminatory practices against certain groups of people with regard to pain management—including withholding necessary pain medication altogether.  Therefore, in many ways the declaration of palliative care as a human right is a necessary step in ensuring all peoples, regardless of identity, have their pain taken seriously by the medical establishment and have their comfort made a medical priority.  When we consider how different cultures negotiate beliefs around death and pain relief, however, the issue of palliative care as a universal human right becomes more complex.  For example, countries with strong histories of Buddhist thought and culture have traditionally opposed the ideology of palliative care.[26]  In Buddhism, suffering is considered an inextricable part of life and masking this suffering through medical intervention is looked down upon.[2]  For example, Vietnam, a country with a culture strongly imbued with Eastern Buddhist values, has a long history of rejecting palliative care and pain medications in general.[26]  Due to this, the World Health Organization’ declaration that palliative care is a universal human right could also be understood as a Western organization blatantly ignoring Buddhist cultural traditions.  While the declaration of palliative care as a human right is important progress in many ways, it is also important that Western medicine not impose our values globally without consideration for the complex histories and belief systems of diverse cultures.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.