Nancy J. Duff’s interest in the intersection between medical ethics and faith has been a long time in the making. Having come from a medical family, it felt natural to Duff to offer a course on medical ethics when she began teaching in 1985. The semester-long course she currently offers, “The Ethics of Resisting and Accepting Death,” focuses on the topics of death and dying. Duff says that her interest in issues surrounding death and dying were, in part, sparked by two related experiences—her participation on the Ethics Committee of Princeton Medical Center, where she has been a member for 25 years, and the experience of watching her dying grandmother being fed against her will. In both experiences, Duff witnessed the harm that the good intentions of medicine can cause when the goal is to extend life at all costs. Duff says, “Medicine has come a long way in the 30 years since that experience with my grandmother, but I believe we still need to address what constitutes better care at the end of life and how to encourage people to talk about their own wishes.”
Duff thinks that many people of faith want to talk about their hopes and fears regarding dying. “In the stories I’ve heard on the ethics committee as well as in personal situations,” Duff says, “I realize how much more difficult making end-of-life decisions becomes when patients have never talked to their family or friends about their wishes.” The church, Duff believes, can encourage such conversations and provide a safe place for people to talk about their wishes and fears in light of their faith.
Duff also acknowledges that while “now” will always be the appropriate time to make our end-of-life wishes known, culturally this is a particularly important time for people to discuss the issue of physician-assisted death. “It’s difficult to have a public conversation about this issue in the present political environment. In the right venue, however, we can talk more honestly about the pros and cons of physician-assisted death.” Duff specifically addresses this topic in chapter three of Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life.
Duff says that she wrote her book at the intersection of the academy and the church. Lay people are an intended part of her audience, and a few churches and pastors have already started utilizing the book. She also hopes it can be used in college and seminary classrooms as well. Meanwhile, Duff says she is already working on a companion book: “Living Faithfully into Older Age.”
[To read a summary of Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life, or to purchase it online, click here.]