Heated debate over Jewish organ transplants


Footballer Avi CohenIn 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 Atlantic. Rabbi 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. The Chief 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 Post called this “meddling” “morally despicable”.


MORE ON THESE TOPICS | brain death, Judaism, organ transplants

 
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