Debate Over the Death of a Child: What’s Fair?

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Debate Over the Death of Washington DC Orthodox Jewish Child: What’s Fair?

Dr. Robyn Silverman

A 12 year old boy is currently lying motionless in his hospital bed in Washington DC after sadly being pronounced “brain dead” (and therefore, medically dead) on Tuesday.

The hospital staff would like to turn off the machines that are keeping his heart pumping and his blood pressure under control so that they can be made available to others in need who have a chance of long term recovery. However, the boy’s parents, devout orthodox Jews, are fighting to keep the machines intact, citing that their religious beliefs dictate that death does not happen until the heart stops beating. This, of course, is a catch 22—they won’t shut off the machines until the heart stops beating—and the heart will not likely stop beating until the machines are shut off.

We must, of course, be tolerant of religious views and practices as we would want others to be tolerant of our personal views. The hospital is going to court over this because the staff feels that treating this child is “offensive to good medical ethics” because, unlike the highly publicized cases of Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan, the boy has no brain activity.

There is currently a debate even within the orthodox Jewish faith about when death does indeed happen—is it when the brain no longer is active or when the heart stops beating? Aside from that, should religion or science define the death of this child?

The statement that if God is the decider of life and death, how do we play a role in this process … is an important theological concept and exactly on point. Medicine has a physiological definition as to when they believe death has occurred. Jewish law believes that the definition of death is not exclusively a medical one but is also a theological one and should be decided in the theological or religious arena. The two obviously work together to some extent but the final arbiter is the religious determination. (Rabbi, Dr. Edward Reichman)

What an emotional and sad case.

There is nothing more tragic than the death of a child. Anyone must feel for these parents. However, given that we are exploring fairness this month, let’s ask, is it fair to the boy—to others awaiting treatment—to the hospital staff—to keep sustaining the boy and using hospital resources? What would you do if you were in such a situation? Should the hospital respect and tolerate the views of the parents even though their views differ from the medical view? What makes sense?

For me, I wouldn’t personally want to stay hooked up to machines in a vegetative state with no brain activity and no hope for recovery. I wouldn’t want anyone in my family to have to suffer like that either. HOWEVER- would I want someone to tell me that my view was wrong? Should we all simply be able to say when enough is (or is not) enough? Who gets to decide? What’s too much?

Please comment below.

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