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A moment for compassion: emerging rhetorics in end-of-life care
  1. Shahaduz Zaman1,2,
  2. Alexander Whitelaw1,
  3. Naomi Richards1,
  4. Hamilton Inbadas1,
  5. David Clark1
  1. 1 School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow, Dumfries, UK
  2. 2 Department of Global Health and Infection, Brighton Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Shahaduz Zaman, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Medical School Teaching Building, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1 9PX, UK; s.zaman{at}


Compassion is an emotional response to the suffering of others. Once felt, it entails subsequent action to ameliorate their suffering. Recently, ‘compassion’ has become the flagship concept to be fostered in the delivery of end-of-life care, and a rallying call for social action and public health intervention. In this paper, we examine the emerging rhetorics of compassion as they relate to end-of-life care and offer a critique of the expanding discourse around it. We argue that, even where individuals ‘possess’ compassion or are ‘trained’ in it, there are difficulties for compassion to flow freely, particularly within Western society. This relates to specific sociopolitical structural factors that include the sense of privacy and individualism in modern industrialised countries, highly professionalised closed health systems, anxiety about litigation on health and safety grounds, and a context of suspicion and mistrust within the global political scenario. We must then ask ourselves whether compassion can be created intentionally, without paying attention to the structural aspects of society. One consequence of globalisation is that countries in the global South are rapidly trying to embrace the features of modernity adopted by the global North. We argue that unrealistic assumptions have been made about the role of compassion in end-of-life care and these idealist aspirations must be tempered by a more structural assessment of potential. Compassion that is not tied to to realistic action runs the risk of becoming empty rhetoric.

  • end of life care
  • palliative care
  • care of the elderly
  • Public Health
  • medical anthropology

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  • Contributors SZ: provided the original concept of the paper, drafted the article and also revised it critically. AW: contributed to critical revisions of the paper. He made specific contributions relating to the public health aspects of ‘compassion’. NR: contributed to critical revisions of the paper. She made specific contributions to the anthropological aspects of ‘compassion’. HI: contributed to critical revisions of the paper. He made specific contributions to the religious aspects of compassion. DC: contributed to drafts and critical revisions of the paper. He made important intellectual contributions in linking different concepts. SZ, AW, NR, HI, DC: provided final approval of the version to be published.

  • Funding This study was funded by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, Grant Number 103319/Z/13/Z.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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