March 22, 2005

What Does Jewish Law Say About Saving a Life- Pikuach Nefesh

Kesher Talk has a piece today dealing with the Schiavo case that I found somewhat interesting. She also provides a link to an article an attorney wrote regarding the Jewish position on saving a life. You can find the link here. It is worth a read.

In addition she links to an opinion piece that Rabbi Aryeh Spero wrote about the Schiavo case as well.

I want to pull a number of different sections and comment on them. Spero said the following:

"Terri Schiavo's heart and brain are not being kept alive by a machine. She breathes on her own and her brain-stem and other strategic parts of her mind continue to function. Terri Schaivo is not an "artificial" person. "Pulling the plug" is a misnomer being used by those who want her dead and out of the picture, i.e., no longer a moral and ethical challenge."
I ask myself is this really true. Can we make the case that someone who has no ability to communicate, no capacity to provide any sort of proof that there is anything that distinguishes them from a plant is a "real person."

Now this is a slippery slope so I am going to tread carefully and it may be that in the end I will review and revise my own thoughts here, but for now I think that the rav's definition is not applicable here in the manner he wishes it to be.

There are two elements that I see as being crucial for the definition of "real person" to be applied. They are the soul and a brain that operates on a level that provides communication with the outside world.

So the question is how do we determine if these two elements exist. I can't give you a tangible example of a soul. I can't tell you how to test for it, some people would argue that there are people who walk the world now without a soul.

But we can say that there is evidence of a soul when we are able to communicate with someone. You can feel its presence emanating from them. When their brain operates at a high enough level that they can provide basic communication there is something that enables us to feel the person that lies before us.

Part of the problem with the slippery slope I am dancing upon now is that I have just made a case that says that people who are comatose are no longer "real people." So what do we do about that, how do we make distinctions.

I don't have exact answers because I am really just thinking out loud here, or more appropriately I am writing out loud. Do we have enough faith in medical science to say that they can measure brainwave activity. Can we believe that doctors/scientists are able to accurately assess whether the person has real activity, the kind that allows for communication or alternatively determine that the brain is so severely damaged that they can never recover.

Part of writing this blog is being totally honest, and I seem to have lost my train of thought so I am going to just babble of another moment or two.

As a parent my hearts goes out to the parents of Terri Schiavo. I cannot imagine what their pain must be like and I understand the desire to do whatever is necessary to save their daughter. But I keep coming back to a couple of points.

One is the assertion of the husband that she never wanted to live like this. I think that quality of life is exceptionally important and there seems to be none here. It does not seem farfetched to me to believe that she would not have wanted this.

The second point is the question of whether she is forever locked in a vegetative state. If she cannot ever come back from there what is served by keeping her body alive. If the mind is gone, is she really still there.

In the end I am not sure that I have any more answers than when I started, But I do know that I feel badly for the family and that such a tragic issue is being played on a national stage instead of in private.

***A brief update on the Jewish Perspective****
You can find the article I pulled this from here:

In Jewish teaching, however, there is no consensus on situations such as Schiavo's.

Rabbi Elliott Dorff, author of "Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics," said it appears there is no chance that Schiavo will recover, since she has spent more than a decade in a vegetative state, and therefore he concluded that the feeding tube amounted to an extraordinary measure. He acknowledged that some rabbis would disagree and would argue that providing food and water artificially was simply filling a basic human need.

"But I see artificial nutrition and hydration in this case as medicine," said Dorff, vice president of the law committee for the Conservative Jewish movement. "At some point or another, we have to recognize that death has come and begin to deal with that appropriately, not medically, but through the mourning process."

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