Case Pits Modern Medicine Against Traditional Jewish Law

Against medical advice, Orthodox Jewish family says son to stay on life support.

Nov. 12, 2008— -- In a heart-wrenching debate pitting modern medicine against traditional Jewish law, a judge will hear arguments next week on whether a hospital can proceed with plans to end life support for a brain-dead 12-year-old boy, even though his Orthodox Jewish parents believe that life only ends when the heart and lungs cease to function.

Motl Brody, whose family lives in a predominately Hasidic community in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been a patient at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for six months with a malignant brain tumor. He never regained consciousness after surgery in June.

In the court filings the hospital says it would like to perform final tests to confirm that the child is brain dead, before shutting off life support. His parents refuse to grant such permission.

The court had scheduled a hearing for Thursday, but postponed it to Nov. 19. Neither the family nor the hospital would comment on the reason behind the delay, but the hospital issued a statement acknowledging that the staff has "has continued to work with the Brody family regarding the care of their child," but that "due to the evolving nature of this situation," both parties requested the postponement.

"We remain hopeful that we can come to a resolution out of court," the hospital statement added.

Previously, Jeffrey Zuckerman, a lawyer for the family, had said that the boy's heart and lungs are functioning and that "the overwhelming majority of authorities on Jewish law have concluded that brain death is not death by Jewish law." The family wants the hospital to keep the child on life support.

The hospital is asking the court to issue a judgment stating that the hospital can take required tests to confirm that Motl is still brain dead and then stop all treatment.

In court papers obtained by ABC News, Dr. Sophia Smith, one of the Motl's physicians, says, "This child has ceased to exist by every medical definition." The doctor, who swore in an affidavit that her views are shared by the entire critical-care staff at the hospital, says that the child was pronounced dead during the night of Nov. 4. She said the child has no ability to breathe on his own.

Smith says that the staff, including physicians, bedside nurses and social workers, "are distraught at what is providing futile care to the earthly remains of a former life."

After the case received national media attention last week, the hospital says it was inundated with harassing and threatening calls.

In response, it broke from its normal protocol and released a statement saying that while it "respects the autonomy of every family to make medical decisions that are consistent with accepted medical practice" it must adhere to District of Columbia law.

"Brain death is the medical and legal standard for death in the District of Columbia," lawyers for the hospital argued.

But Edward Reichman, a rabbi and doctor at Albert Einstein College in New York, says Jewish law is not so cut and dry.

"The family's belief is not a fringe extreme position in Jewish law. There are clearly many within the Jewish Orthodox community that accept brain death as legal death, but even those respect 100 percent, the views of others in the community who do not respect brain death as legal death."

Reichman says that the issue has come up before but that in the majority of cases no conflict emerged between the hospital and the family because cardiac death usually ensues within a few days or hours of this kind of brain death.

Zuckerman says the family has tried to find a facility in New York to take the child, but has not yet found an acceptable facility. The boy's parents, Eluzer and Miriam Brody, have declined to provide updates on the physical state of their son. The parents are members of the Bobov Hasidic sect, which has a large contingent living in Brooklyn.

Similar circumstances stemming from disputes regarding end-of-life issues have gained national attention with the cases of Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan, but this case is different as doctors say that the boy has no brain function at all, unlike Schiavo and Quinlan, who were said to be in a "persistent vegetative state."

The case will be heard in D.C. Superior Court.