Medicine Does Not Know What 'Dead' Is

Why doctors should not have the last word on life and death. An interview with Duke physician Raymond Barfield.
Medicine Does Not Know What 'Dead' Is
Image: Rudyanto Wijaya / iStock

Last week Time Magazine asked me to write a commentary on the case of Jahi McMath, the 13 year old whose family sought to keep on continuing life support after doctors had declared her dead. On everyone's mind as well was Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel who died on Saturday after eight years in a "vegetative state" following a stroke in 2006. I knew the first person I needed to call was Ray Barfield, director of the palliative care program at Duke and also an associate professor of Christian philosophy at Duke Divinity School. Barfield is one of the most passionate and compassionate doctors I know, deeply engaged as both a doctor and a Christian thinker with questions of technology and meaning in medicine. Our conversation shaped my Time essay ("Lost in the Valley of Death," January 20, 2014) and should inform all of us as we wrestle with the possibilities and limits of medical technology.

—Andy Crouch, executive editor, Christianity Today

When you hear of a case like Jahi McMath's, what do you sense is missing in the public debate?

In a case like this there is a lot of forgotten history, on the part of both medicine and the church.

Part of the history that medicine forgets is the reason we started thinking of brain death as death. We didn't really start thinking of brain death as death until doctors at Harvard discovered that if we were to define it that way we'd be able to harvest organs for transplantation. Advances in organ transplantation is what first really pushed medicine to start coming up with alternate definitions of death.

Medicine tends to forget that—we just hand the definition on and accept it as it is.

The church has plenty that ...

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Medicine Does Not Know What 'Dead' Is
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