In the on-going debate over the ethics of removing organs from “brain dead”
patients, the conservative view has scored a goal. The chief rabbinical court
of the UK has
decreed that only “cardiorespiratory
death is definitive”. The Beth Din's conditions would mean that an
observant Jew could donate kidneys, livers or corneas, for example, but not
heart or lungs.
The result was consternation in the British Medical
Association, as 66% of donations
came from donors after brain death in 2010 and 34% from donors after
cardiovascular death. The BMA called for an urgent meeting to clarify the situation.
The decision was greeted by fierce criticism across the
Moshe Tendler, a medical ethics professor at New York's Yeshiva University,
declared: "The Beth Din must realise they have sentenced to death anyone
waiting for a vital organ transplant." In his opinion brain stem death was
"the only accurate method to determine that a patient has died".
The UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks,
tried to clarify the statement by admitting that there may be “reasonable disagreement as to whether a patient is
alive or dead”. However, the original wording of the Beth Din’s
statement was strong:
There is a view that brain
stem death is an acceptable Halachic [Jewish law] criterion in the
determination of death. This is the view of some Poskim (Halachic decisors) .
However it is the considered opinion of the London Beth Din in line with most
Poskim worldwide, that in Halacha cardiorespiratory death is definitive.
The Beth Din says that it wants the UK’s National
Organ Donor Registry to come up with a donation system which will be compatible
with Jewish practice.
The issue is far from academic, as anger over a recent case in Israel
shows. Avi Cohen, a 51-year-old soccer star who had played for Liverpool in his
heyday, was brain-injured in a car smash in December. He had been a strong
advocate for organ donation. After learning that he was “brain dead”, his
relatives began to discuss arrangements for organ donation with the hospital.
Rabbinate in Israel had ruled in 1986 that brain death was sufficient for
donation in certain cases. And Sephardi Chief Rabbi told the Cohen family that
the donation was a mitzvah [permissible]. However, other rabbis persuaded the
family that only cardiac death was acceptable and the donations did not happen.
An editorial in the Jerusalem
called this “meddling” “morally despicable”.