HEC Forum

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When Religious Language Blocks Discussion About Health Care Decision Making

  • George KhushfEmail author


There is a curious asymmetry in cases where the use of religious language involves a breakdown in communication and leads to a seemingly intractable dispute. Why does the use of religious language in such cases almost always arise on the side of patients and their families, rather than on the side of clinicians or others who work in healthcare settings? I suggest that the intractable disputes arise when patients and their families use religious language to frame their problem and the possibilities of solution. Unlike clinicians, they are not bilingual and thus lack the capacity to understand and negotiate differences in terms that are responsive to those who work in healthcare settings. After considering a representative case, I explore whether an ethics consultant or chaplain can function as a translator and suggest that, at best, such efforts at mediation depend on contingent aspects of a case and will only be partially successful. To appreciate limits on the role for bilingual translators, I consider a futility dispute where a parent using religious language demands that everything be done for a permanently unconscious child. I challenge the traditional interpretation that says the parent values “mere duration of biological life irrespective of quality.” From a religious perspective, human life is never “merely biological.” This effort to slot the dispute into standard philosophical schemas misses what is crucial in the dispute. I suggest that a better interpretation views the dispute at a meta-level as one about whether withholding and withdrawing care is morally distinguishable from killing. Curiously, this interpretation makes the advocate of futile care into an ally of those “quality of life” advocates who also challenge this distinction. The crux of their dispute now rests on the normative ethics of killing. While I think my interpretation comes much closer to the views of many who demand ‘futile care,’ I suggest that it still falls short because of the way it reconstructs the religious concerns in nonreligious terms. I close by considering an analogy between the language of suffering and the language of faith, suggesting that both require a much richer understanding of the narratives that orient the lives of patients and their families.


Ethical controversy Ethics consultation Faith Futility Patient-clinician relationship Religion Religious reasons Suffering 



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Center for BioethicsUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

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