Israeli High Court Rules That Time of Death Can Only Be Determined by Medical Standards

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that medical standards alone determine the precise time of death which is the time when the brain ceases to function. Sources at the Chief Rabbinical Council said the ruling did not conflict with halacha, at least not in the specific case to which it was applied.

The ruling was on the appeal of a man convicted of murdering his wife by setting her afire and pushing her from an upper floor of a building. The woman was rushed to a hospital where doctors determined that her brain was not functioning though other organs were. She was kept alive for several days artificial means but died when the mechanisms were removed.

Her husband argued that death was caused by detaching medical equipment, not by the fall. But the high court rejected his appeal on grounds that the woman was brain dead upon arrival at the hospital.

Although the Rabbinical Council agreed in this case that death was determined in accordance with halachic principles, the ruling could raise problems in the future with the religious establishment. The rabbinate has strongly opposed heart and other organ transplants on grounds that a donor could not be declared dead as long as the heart continued to beat. Doctors point out that hearts can be kept beating by artificial means long after brain death.

Justice Moshe Bejski, who headed the panel of jurists examining the case, said he studied the Chief Rabbinical Council’s guidelines before handing down his decision. He stressed, however, that only modern medical principles can apply when determining the time of death, not principles adopted “many generations ago.”

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