Family battles plan to turn off father's respirator

Local Jewish leaders worried that Canadian hospital may be acting out of budgetary concerns.

respirator 224 88 (photo credit: IDF)
respirator 224 88
(photo credit: IDF)
Doctors at Grace General Hospital in Winnipeg, Canada, are waging a legal battle to detach a respirator and hasten the death (via morphine and halted feedings) of 84-year-old Orthodox Jew Samuel Golubchuk - against his family's wishes. The case, which has aroused anger and fear within the North American Jewish community that the case will set a precedent for doctors to have exclusive power over life and death decisions, has been widely reported in the local press. Rabbinical and community leaders worry that budget-conscious hospital systems may decide to shorten patients' lives to save money or free up beds. Rabbi Asher Bush, chairman of the Halacha Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (the world's largest organization of Orthodox rabbis), said: "We find this lack of respect for life and the denial of the patient's and family's right to choose life to be most disturbing and against our most sacred principles of the sanctity of human life." Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a New York neurologist and co-founder of an international seminar series on Jewish medical ethics run by the Jerusalem Center of Research: Medicine and Halacha, told the Post: "I have... lectured about, discussed and studied end-of-life and critical care matters with some of the greatest physicians and scholars in Judaism [for] more than a decade, and I do not know a single one who would deem what is being proposed by these doctors as acceptable. To my knowledge, the doctors involved have not had a neurologist come in and perform a thorough neurological examination, nor have they obtained serial EEGs and brain-wave tests, both of which might better detect the patient's true level of neurologic function and might help exclude reversible neurological conditions. The Hippocratic Oath, which doctors have taken for millennia upon graduation, clearly states: 'I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.'" Prof. Shimon Glick, a leading Israeli medical ethics expert and former dean if Ben-Gurion University's Health Sciences Faculty, commented: "From a halachic point of view, removing a feeding tube from a patient who has any brain function is active euthanasia, equivalent to murder ... But here, in addition, unless the patient has specifically indicated by advance directive that such is his desire, one has a violation of the patient's autonomy, as well." The US Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists discussed the case earlier this week at its annual meeting in New York, passing a resolution of grave concern about this case. Agudath Israel of America has also expressed its concern. The Orthodox Golubchuk family has gone to court to sue the hospital and doctors in a last-ditch attempt to stop active euthanasia. The hospital says the patient suffers from "minimal brain function." The family lawyer says the hospital has not conducted an electrocardiogram or asked a neurologist to determine his level of consciousness and that turning off the respirator against his will should be regarded as "assault." The Golubchuks' lawyer also said the patient was not "lower-brain dead," meaning that his heart beats on its own and he even holds his relatives' hands. According to a national Canadian survey of over 1,000 adults, two-thirds support the family on the right of patients and their legal guardians to make decisions on ethical issues such as quality vs. sanctity of life. A lawyer representing one of the hospital doctors said that Canadian courts have ruled that the removal of a respirator by hospital staff does not constitute assault, as it is only a matter of withdrawing treatment and is a daily and acceptable practice in Canadian hospitals. Another hospital lawyer told the court that doctors "have the sole right to make decisions about treatment - even if it goes against a patient's religious beliefs." Golubchuk's doctors claim he is in pain, and that if they continue to perform invasive procedures, they could be involved in "abuse."