Friday, November 7, 2008

Jewish Law and the Meaning of Death

This morning's Washington Post has a poignant story about 12 year old Motl Brody who - by brain criteria - has died.

Motl's parents are Orthodox Jews who define death as the moment when the soul leaves the body, for which the criterion is cessation of heartbeat. Motl, though dead, is on "life support" interventions, which sustain cardiac function.

While not all Orthodox Jews define death as Motl's family does, their belief is not idiosyncratic. Their rabbi supports them, and many (the percentages are unknown) within the Orthodox community support them as well.

The case will be heard in D.C. Superior Court on Monday. The connection to the explosive U.S. controversy about abortion is obvious. Many opponents of abortion base their view on their religious belief as to when the soul enters the body. Motl's family's refusal to allow "life support" to be removed is based on their religious belief as to when the soul leaves the body. While their view has fewer adherents, the structure of the standoff is the same - a contest between secular society and religious conviction.

There are obviously crucial differences. A fetus, unless spontaneous abortion occurs, will come to birth. Motl, whose brain has been invaded by cancer, will not come back to life and regain consciousness unless a miracle occurs.

For the Children's National Medical Center, where Motl is, and all those who and accept the brain-based criteria of death, sadly, he is dead. For his family and a segment of the Orthodox Jewish community, sadly, he is gravely ill, but alive. The similarities to the paralyzing abortion controversy are obvious. This poignant situation may go to the U.S. Supreme Court if Motl's heart continues to beat despite the sad fact of his being dead.


eric said...

Jim--The "right of conscience" rule described in today's Globe
turns the "right to life" movement on its head. Are doctors now permitted to not initiate or maintain life support for people for whom their medical opinion and their religious conviction dictates that these procedures are contra-indicated and immoral?

eric said...
the link to the regulation promulgated today regarding "right of conscience" rule.

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Eric -

Thanks for these comments and the two links.

To my reading the "Health Care Conscience Protection" regulations are wrongheaded in important ways. Most notably, in allowing individuals to refuse "to counsel, suggest, recommend, assist, or in any way participate in the performance of abortions or
sterilizations contrary to or consistent with the applicant's religious beliefs or moral convictions" the regulations appear to allow health professionals to avoid their duty to refer patients elsewhere for any legal services they are not willing to provide. Taken to its literal extreme the regulations can be read as you read them - allowing health professionals to do harm in the name of following their conscience.

I expect that the regulations will be altered by the new administration.