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August 9, 2017 11:08 am

Charlie Gard and Life

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Rabbisacks.org.

You may have read about the battle in London over the final days of a baby named Charlie Gard. He was born with a form of mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, which causes increasing muscle weakness and brain damage. There is no known cure.

The doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London put the baby on life support, and his situation continued to deteriorate rapidly. There was no brain activity and most of the muscles in his body had stopped functioning.

The doctors concluded that nothing could be done to help him, and asked the parents’ permission to turn off life support. The parents refused. Great Ormond Street turned to the courts, which agreed with them. Despite appeals from around the world and much reconsideration, the court decision stood. The parents gave up the fight, and agreed to have the baby moved into a hospice. The ventilator was turned off, and he died.

It was a tragic story, made worse by what has become the norm nowadays: ideologically- and politically-motivated agitators who became involved in the affair simply to push their own agendas.

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The pro-life lobby protested turning off the ventilator under any circumstances. Others argued that only the parents should decide. On the other hand, some argued that courts had the ultimate responsibility, while others said that medical opinion should be the final arbiter. The hospital and its staff came under threats of violence.

This very public battle raised interesting moral issues. Can we morally terminate a life that is clearly destined for extinction before it reaches its natural conclusion? Who should decide? The courts? Religion? The parents?

In theory, Jewish law states quite unequivocally that one may do nothing to hasten a person’s death. No rabbi worthy of the title would ever sanction hastening a death in principle. But every situation is different. Jewish law is predicated on offering solutions to specific problems rather than generalized ex cathedra statements of morality. So, can we ever hasten a death?

Like most official rabbinical positions, there are mitigating circumstances. You can take various measures to reduce pain, even if this indirectly hastens a person’s death. You can withhold new intervention, i.e. Shev VeAl Tasseh (“sit back and not take action”).

All of the rabbis that I know who are experts in this field consult medical experts — yet they often get different conclusions or interpretations. There are still ongoing debates in Jewish law over how one determines brain death, when one may harvest organs, and when and how we can remove someone from a ventilator. Some rabbis are permissive. Others are restrictive. But at least you can choose which rabbi to follow. You may remember that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was kept alive on a ventilator for eight years.

But who has the final say? In most countries, the state intervenes against the wishes of parents if the courts deem that the parents are withholding treatment, or demanding irrational treatment. Classic cases here often occur among Christian Scientists, who generally do not believe in any medical intervention — and refuse to allow treatment for their children. The courts consider themselves responsible for the ultimate protection of the child or an elderly or incapacitated person. To me, this seems perfectly reasonable and necessary.

In Judaism we believe that “the law of the land is the law,” unless it directly contradicts our fundamental religious values. Why? Because the ultimate authority is God’s. Observant Jews defer to the Jewish law above all else. Yet they too can be coerced by the law of the land.

In a secular country, the law will be the final arbiter. In a religious country, it will be the religious authorities. I am only in favor of religious authority having the final say where the vast and overwhelming majority of citizens want this. Otherwise, I prefer leaving such questions to the secular legal system. This is a purely personal view. Although I do not completely trust either and have seen the ugly side of both, the secular democratic system allows for greater openness and exposure.

Nevertheless, I consider combining the secular and the religious to be an excellent solution, because it requires a compromise between two different moral positions. To consider only law or only religion is dangerous, because it gives too much power to the humans on whichever side they stand. Humans are fallible — and most human bureaucratic or governmental institutions are prone to error, incompetence and dogma. To try to reconcile civil, medical and spiritual values requires sensitivity and openness.

In the case of Charlie Gard, I believe that the courts dealt with this issue with sensitivity, understanding and integrity. I deplored the circus. I admired the conclusion.

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  • Joseph Feld

    Well argued. In Jewish Law we often involve both a medical doctor and a rabbi. If possible we consult a Torah observant Jewish doctor who is familiar with both systems, e.g. organ harvesting. In Charlie Gard’s case the proposed treatment had never been used on humans or animals and would not have had more than a 10% chance of any help at all. The Pope and President Trump offered their support, touching gestures, and the British public raised financial support to take Charlie to the USA if that would have helped. The British judges said the decision should not involve the court. The doctors and the family should make the informed decision.

  • kris Sanford

    🇺🇸

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