[Paleopsych] Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo

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Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo
The Jewish Journal Of Greater Los Angeles

                 by Joanne Palmer, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

       As a federal court considers whether to reconnect Terri Schiavos
       feeding tube, Jewish scholars are turning to halacha, or Jewish
                  religious law, for guidance on the issue.

     Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and
     husband have been battling in state and now federal courts for more
    than a decade, is the insensate center of a swirl of emotion and legal

    Religious leaders have been involved as well. Schiavo and her parents,
    Mary and Robert Schindler, are Roman Catholic, and many of their most
              fervent supporters are fundamentalist Protestants.

     The Schindlers want to keep their daughters feeding tube in; Michael
     Schiavo, her husband, wants it removed so his wife can die a natural

     Jews, like others caught up in the debate, have a range of beliefs,
     and their understanding of how to apply halacha varies accordingly.
     Virtually all the rabbis interviewed, though, told JTA that they did
        not agree with attempts by some conservative Christians to tie
              Schiavos case to the public debate about abortion.

       At the traditional end of the spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the
      ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Schiavo case is
     straightforward from a Jewish perspective: The most important point
    from a halachic standpoint is that a compromised life is still a life.

    In the Schiavo case, youre not dealing with a patient in extremis, he
    said, noting that until her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was not

    In halacha, there is a category for a person at the edge of death; the
          rules for such a person, called a goses, are complicated.

      There are times when certain medical intervention is halachically
     contraindicated, Shafran said. There may be times when its OK not to
    shock a heart back into beating, not to administer certain drugs. You
                       do not prolong the act of dying.

      However, Schiavo was not a goses, Shafran said. Instead, he added,
    before the tube was removed, she had the exact same halachic status as
    a baby or a demented person. Like a baby, she was helpless, could not
     feed herself and was not able to communicate in any meaningful way.
                            But a life is a life.

      Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox
        Union, the central arm of modern Orthodoxy, agreed that from a
          halachic perspective, the Schiavo case is straightforward.

    Its not permitted to do anything actively that would stop the process
       of a persons staying alive, he said. In this case, that would be
     withdrawing a feeding tube, which is tantamount to starving a person
                                  to death.

    Like Shafran, Weinreb said the wishes of the patient or the family are
                                not relevant.

     It might have a bearing on whether new measures are undertaken, but
      once a person is on a support system, removing it is not possible,
                                Weinreb said.

       Doing something to actively interfere with a persons ability to
      continue to live technically is murder, he said. I cant imagine a
       scenario that would make removing the feeding tube permissible.

       Rabbi David Feldman, who had an Orthodox ordination and defines
     himself as traditional, is rabbi emeritus of the Conservadox Jewish
                           Center of Teaneck, N.J.

    Theres a dispute here between a husband and parents, but none of that
      makes any difference as far as halacha is concerned, said Feldman,
    author of Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law
     (Schocken, 1975) and the dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics.
     You cant hasten death yourself, with your own hands. If death comes,
     you can thank God because its a relief, but you cant decide yourself
                           that it has to be done.

       The only time it would be acceptable to remove a medical device,
     Feldman said, would be if something worse would happen if leaving it
                    in would cause infection or more pain.

      You can kill someone pursuing you, you can kill the soldier in the
      enemy army, maybe very cautiously you can kill if there is a death
     penalty, but you cant kill an innocent person because of illness, he

     Rabbi Joel Roth is a member of the Conservative movements Rabbinical
     Assemblys Law Committee. In 1990, when he was the committees chair,
      the group studied end-stage medical care and accepted two opposing
               positions on artificial nutrition and hydration.

     One, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, would permit withholding and withdrawing
          the tube; the other, by Rabbi Avraham Reisner, would not.

      The divide comes from how the tube that provides food and water is
     defined. If it is seen as a medical device, as Dorff does, it may be
      removed, Roth said. If it is seen as a feeding device, as Reisner
                         does, it may not be removed.

       Dorff puts a person dependent on a feeding tube in the halachic
    category of treifah, which, he argues, is a life that does not require
      our full protection an animal that is treifah is one that has some
    kind of physical defect that will prohibit it from having a prolonged
    life. So he argues that a treifah is a life that does not require our
                         full protection, Roth said.

     Reisner, on the other hand, treats these people as goses, Roth said.

       And even in the end stage, he noted, there is the value of chaya
      shaah, the life of the hour. In other words, Roth said, even when
           there is very little life left, that life still matters.

        The Conservative movement accepts both decisions, but Roth, a
    professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary
         in New York, sides with Reisner, and with Schiavos parents.

       She should be kept on the feeding tube, he said. Shes not being
                  medicated, and shes breathing on her own.

    Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches rabbinics at the Reform movements Hebrew
    Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and he sits
                     on the movements responsa committee.

      The movement does not speak with one voice on the issue, Washofsky
    said, but in 1994 it issued a responsa on the treatment of terminally
                                ill patients.

    Like the Conservative decisions, the Reform rabbis base their view of
     whether a feeding tube can be removed on their understanding of the
                               tubes function.

      We cannot claim that Jewish tradition categorically prohibits the
    removal of food and water from dying patients, Washofsky said. But we
     consider food and water, no matter how they are delivered, the staff
     of life. So what we ultimately do is express deep reservations about
    their withdrawal, but in the end, we say, nonetheless, that because we
        cannot declare that the cessation of artificial nutrition and
      hydration is categorically forbidden by Jewish moral thought, the
      patient and the family must ultimately let their consciences guide

     Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the
    Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, agrees that the
                  question is how a feeding tube is defined.

       If it were a form of eating, a position held by a number of more
     traditional halachic authorities, then youre required to feed those
     who are hungry, Teutsch said. But if its medicine a position held by
     Conservative authorities like Rabbi Elliott Dorff, and by me as well
      then you serve the interests of the patient, which may involve not
                             providing medicine.

    He believes that a feeding tube is a medical device, and so it can be
                            removed, Teutsch said.

       Its pretty clear that its closer to regular intervention than to
                               eating, he said.

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