Doctors, an many lawyers, believe the ethical controversy over life and death has no routine place in the courts, but hospitals and doctors often use the courts as a protection against some unseen liability. To many doctors, as one of them conceded, their fight is against death, sometimes at all costs. Dr. Peter Pushkas of the National Cancer Institute Clinical Oncology Program said, "Many doctors regard death as a personal defeat. They are fighting the wrong battle, under the notion that they are treating diseases. But they are treating human beings and ultimately humans die . . ."
The advocates of assistance to those who wish to accelerate their own dying would like to see laws permitting it.
Others see such laws as opening the doors to abuses almost beyond comprehension.
The ethical problem has grown out of the explosion of medical technology that provides heroic methods for maintaining blood flow, heart beat, kidney function when no hope of a cure is present.
In its more than seven years of existence, the St. Francis Center of Washington, under the directorship of the Rev. William Wendt, has not only played a major role in counseling families and patients in crisis, but also in stripping death of the taboos in which, in this country at least, it has long been clothed.
With its seventh conference, which ends today at the National Presbyterian Center, Wendt and his mostly volunteer army have assembled the participants-- sometimes antagonists--in the philosophical and ethical struggles over when succor ends and murder begins.
One thing taken for granted at the conference would have been unheard of just five years ago except in whispered doctor-to-doctor conversations: Today, religious leaders, doctors, lawyers, laymen, nurses, psychologists and thanatologists agree that under certain circumstances with certain people it is permissible, indeed preferable, to take no heroic measures to prolong life.