Religion in Hospital Rooms, Making the Call on Life Support and Death

On Monday, a 12-year-old boy who had been kept alive on life support died in a D.C. hospital. Motl Brody had aggressive brain cancer and his family grabbed the media’s attention when they began working through the judicial system to keep him on life support. His doctors declared Motl legally dead two weeks ago when a brain function test detected no brain activity at all. His family, Orthodox Jews, disagreed based on their Hasidic sect’s view that life continues as long at the heart is beating. The family sought help from the District’s judicial system in keeping Motl on life support, and asked for an order to prevent the hospital from performing any further tests for brain function. The hospital, who asked Motl’s parents for permission to end life support measures once there was no longer brain function, then requested permission from the judge to end the treatment and stated that the institution’s “scarce resources are being used for the preservation of a deceased body.” Religious supporters campaigned with phone calls and emails to the hospital, hoping to keep Motl on life support. Yet it appears the Jewish community is not wholly in agreement on where life ends, some perspectives aligning with Motl’s doctors that life ends with brain activity. What had the look of a long and emotional court battle, however, ended on Monday when the drugs and machines could no longer keep Motl’s heart beating. He died and was buried in Brooklyn, his family’s hometown, ending the dispute before the court could.

The question of when, and at whose discretion, medical life support should cease dominated headlines in 2005 with Terri Schiavo. In Schiavo’s case, the struggle between her husband (fighting to remove her feeding tube) and her parents (fighting to keep the feeding tube in place) centered on what Terri would have wanted – to be kept alive in the persistent vegetative state or not. In the case of Motl and his parents, religious belief is at the heart of the matter. It makes for a tricky situation for doctors who have to strike a balance between respecting the beliefs of patients and their families, and in making the best decision supported by science and medicine. Should the hospital in this case have gone as far with the Brodys as they felt their religion required? Does the right to freedom of religion entitle each of us to call the shots in medical situations – whether refusing treatment of demanding it? Or, should doctors make scientific decisions on end-of-life questions and leave spiritual beliefs completely out of it?

Motl Brody’s court case ended before any court orders were issued but, even if a judge had ruled with one side or the other, the questions raised by this situation would remain. Religious freedom is an unquestionably precious right, but doctors must be empowered to make medical choices based on the best information available to them. The best chance for a balance of these interests seems to be for medical decisions, especially ones of life or death, to be made based on conversations between patients and doctors. Of course, the Brodys’ experience illustrates that these conversations won’t always lead to agreement. Respect for religion and respect for science – there’s got to be a way they can both exist in a hospital room.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user dharmaphotographs.

Published in: on November 20, 2008 at 1:02 pm Comments Off on Religion in Hospital Rooms, Making the Call on Life Support and Death
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