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The Issue of Autopsies

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The government has decided to submit to the Knesset without delay an amendment to the Pathology Law that would severely limit the circumstances under which autopsies can be performed. The move is clearly intended to placate the Aguda Israel bloc, which was angered by the recent defeat of an anti-abortion measure in the Knesset and is threatening to leave Premier Menachem Begin’s coalition.

The proposed autopsy amendment was unanimously approved by the Cabinet Sunday. It would permit autopsies only if the deceased person had agreed prior to death or if the family of the deceased consented afterwards. The only exception would be in cases where foul play is suspected. Under the present law, a panel of three doctors can override the family’s objections.

The autopsy issue has been a cause of bitter strife between religious and secular circles in Israel. Very often doctors and Orthodox families battled over possession of the body of the deceased. Such disputes have decreased lately as Israel’s medical teaching hospitals have been able to obtain a sufficient supply of cadavers from abroad.

The Medical Association, however, opposes the amendment and a delegation of doctors plans to lobby among Knesset members before the measure goes to the floor. The Medical Association says the amendment would mean retrogression in Israel’s medical sciences.

Nevertheless, coalition whips say it will not encounter the same opposition in the Knesset that resulted in the recent defeat of the anti-abortion amendment. It is not clear whether passage of the autopsy legislation will satisfy the Aguda as long as the present, relatively liberal abortion law remains on the books.


Meanwhile, MK David Glass of the National Religious Party, has revived another dormant religious issue that could lead to an all-out battle in the Knesset and possibly topple the government. As chairman of the Knesset’s Legal Committee he has begun hearings on the “Who is a Jew?” amendment to the Law of Return.

The amendment, proposed more than a year ago by Kahana of the Poalei Agudat Israel, would add to the law governing conversions to Judaism the words “according to halacha”(religious law). This would invalidate conversions performed by any but Orthodox rabbis. It is one of several concessions to the Orthodox that Begin committed himself to in exchange for their support when he formed his coalition government two years ago.

It is strongly opposed both within Israel and among Reform and Conservative Jews overseas. But the three religious factions — the NRP and the two Aguda parties–are inexorably committed to it.

The explosive nature of the amendment has prevented a full-scale Knesset debate until now But Glass’s committee has begun taking testimony. At the committee’s session today, Prof. Ezra Spicehandler of the Jerusalem branch of the Hebrew Union College, an American Reform seminary, warned that the “Who is a Jew?” amendment would “sow division” among the Jewish people at a time when maximum solidarity is needed.

He said it would offend “85 percent of American Jews who belong to the Conservative or Reform movements.” However, Spicehandler said, in reply to a question by Glass, that the Reform movement would “give favorable consideration” to a proposal to establish a joint Orthodox-Conservative-Reform “beit din” (religious court) to handle conversions.

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