As a father, I can’t begin to imagine the agony of the death of one of your children, but how much more agonizing would it be to have to determine whether a child is actually dead? When do you pull the plug? When does God pull the plug?
Those are some of the questions now faced by the Brody family. A hospital in Washington says 12-year-old Motl Brody is dead. “This child has ceased to exist by every medical definition,” Sophia Smith, one of the child’s physicians, wrote in court papers. “There is no activity in any portion of his brain, including the brain stem.”
Motl’s Orthodox Jewish parents and their advocates disagree. They say their religious beliefs do not recognize the concept of brain death, and their son is alive as long as his heart beats. “The child may not be conscious, may not be interactive, but that doesn’t mean that in the eyes of Jewish law, the value of that life is any less,” Rabbi Edward Reichman, a rabbi and doctor at Albert Einstein College, told the Post.
Motl remains in intensive care in Children’s National Medical Center while hospital officials seek a court order allowing them to disconnect the boy from machines and medications that keep his lungs working and his heart beating. A hearing in D.C. Superior Court is scheduled for Nov. 10.
According to The Uniform Determination of Death Act, “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead.” The law is accepted by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Not by all religions.
Two years ago, a Buddhist family in Boston argued that Cho Fook Cheng, their brain-dead, 72-year-old father and grandfather, was still alive and should not be disconnected from a ventilator and medications that kept his heart beating. “Even if someone is brain-dead, there may be a level of consciousness communicated by the heart beating,” said John J. Makransky, a professor of Buddhism at Boston College, told the Boston Globe.
The family won a court order that prevented the Boston hospital from disconnecting Cheng, but the family later agreed stop the medications and allow Cheng’s heart to stop beating naturally.
Other religions accept brain death. “As long as person has total brain death, we accept that person has died,” Rev. Alfred Cioffi, S.T.D., Ph.D., of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told The Bulletin in Philadelphia.
Some states like New York allow religious exceptions for medical determination of death. The District of Columbia does not. Reichman said some Orthodox Jews base the definition of death on brain activity but others base it on a heartbeat.
In either case, Reichman said, death is defined religiously as the moment when the soul leaves the body. “Obviously, no physician or human being is capable of determining when that happens, so we have to have a medical definition,” he said.
Dylan Thomas told us to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but who should get to decide when and how the light has gone out? Shouldn’t the state make allowances for religious understandings of death?
Editor’s Note: Motl Brody’s heart stopped beating on its own early Nov. 15. He was buried Nov. 16.
Motl Brody’s uncle Yitzchak Halberstam said: “We are very grateful he was able to stay on life support until he died. We hope the case will sensitize the medical establishment to the importance of respecting any patient’s religious beliefs regarding life and death.”