The Case of the Israeli Toddler in Britain: The Verdict is Justifiably Akin to Murder

Rav Yuval Cherlow 

Initially published in Israel Hayom Newspaper on 08/06/2021

The British Supreme Court approved the disconnection of the child with a brain injury from a mechanical ventilator, even refusing to accept the parents’ request to transfer her for treatment in the Israel. This determination is classified in Jewish ethics and Israeli law – as murder.

Proper treatment for end-of-life patients is one of the topics that continues to dominate the bioethical world. The success of medicine specifically has brought us to many situations in which there is an immense divide between the body and the soul. At times, consciousness is demented while the body is entirely healthy, and at times the body betrays the mind while it is still at its clearest. Not only this, but medicine has enabled us to allow a person to live via advanced technology, and Israeli society witnessed this with the process of Arik Sharon’s death.

It is important to know that there are situations where it is indeed permitted to ease off treatment, perhaps even an obligation. Halachic ethics deals often with the transition from the obligation to fight for and save each minute of life, to the reverse situation where one should allow a person to leave this world with pleasantness and tranquility. Tzohar rabbis often deal with this through the project “Tzohar Ad 120” which accompanies families through this dilemma, when the obligation is two-fold: not to shorten life when it is prohibited, and not to prolong suffering when there is no purpose.

An especially difficult problem exists when dealing with small children afflicted with uncurable illnesses, with no functional abilities and a poor prognosis. The emotional difficulty and the tremendous pain are present alongside heavy questions, and the need to make extremely tough decisions. The gedolim of the Israeli Rabbinate already determined in 1987 that brain-respiratory death is recognized in halacha and there is no obligation to continue to treat a person such as this.

This determination is not accepted by some of the halachic authorities, mainly in the Chareidi world, and therefore the Brain-Respiratory Death Law addresses their position as well. However, when dealing with a living child, even if she is severely impaired, there is a unilateral determination by Jewish ethics, which has also been legislated in the State of Israel: it is prohibited to disconnect them from a mechanical ventilator.

Life is a supreme value. One must be very careful not to say, “the most supreme value”, for at times we sacrifice our lives for a loved one, war for defense of our country, or risking oneself as a firefighter. However, extreme situations such as these do not nullify the lofty place of the value of life, to the point where the term “holiness” is applied to life itself. We are not permitted to take a life and decide that a person’s life is not worth living.

Contrasting with this unilateral position, the British Supreme Court granted itself the right to require the disconnection of the impaired child from the respirator, and even refused the parents’ request to transfer her for treatment in Israel. This verdict of the English courts is defined by Jewish ethics and Israeli law – as murder. We do not stand with the position to take a life by disconnecting a child from a respirator.

This ethical position does not rule out other conditions where we transfer to palliative care, whose goal is patient quality of life, not rehabilitative efforts, or prolongation of life. Quite the opposite: this is a humane, moral, and compassionate treatment designed to provide the patient with wellbeing. It is not a life-shortening treatment, even if it abstains from prolonging it. This is our ethical message, and the State of Israel’s protocol as a Jewish state in this matter is a light unto the world.

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