British rabbis of all denominations are supporting a court decision ordering the separation of conjoined twins, though the operation will mean the death of the weaker girl.
In a case that has sharply divided the nation, Britain’s Court of Appeals last Friday upheld an earlier decision to separate the twins, who share vital organs.
The parents of the twins known as “Jodie” and “Mary” are opposed to the operation, although doctors believe that if the girls are not separated, both will die within months.
If they are separated, doctors say, Jodie could live a normal life, while Mary would die.
The parents, devout Roman Catholics, say only God should determine how long the children will live.
British Jewish ethicists are meanwhile siding with the court order.
Many rely on the analogy that Mary is a “rodef” – Hebrew for a “pursuer” – of Jodie.
“The principle is couched in fairly barbaric language because it’s an ancient principle,” said Dr. Harry Freedman of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement.
“But if someone is pursuing another person” with the intent to kill, “you can kill the pursuer to save the life of the pursued,” he said.
Berel Berkovits of the Federation of Synagogues, an Orthodox body, said there are two ways to look at the case.
“Is it one person or two?” he said of the twins.
“You might argue that it’s one organism, in which case separating” one from the other “is like an amputation to save a life.” That course of action is certainly permissible, he added.
If the twins are two separate organisms, he said, each could be considered a pursuer of the other, since each, in effect, would kill the other if they are not separated.
“So the inevitable conclusion, sad though it is, is that you may – and in fact probably should – operate.”
Rabbi Charles Middleburgh of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues also supports the court’s ruling.
“One of the things that Judaism teaches is that the saving of life is paramount,” he said.
Because it is possible to save Jodie by separating her from her sister, Jewish tradition recommends that option, he said.
The chief rabbi’s spokesman on medical ethics, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, explained why he disagreed with the parents’ desire to let nature take its course.
“Judaism rejects passivity and noninterference with nature,” he said. “Jewish law supports the life-saving operation.”
While agreeing with the legal ruling, many rabbis expressed concern that the decision of the parents, who have not been named, was not upheld.
“I agree with the ruling in terms of the twins,” said Middleburgh. “But I am uneasy that the parents’ wishes are being ignored.”
Freedman said there was a case to be made for respecting the parents’ wishes.
“You can argue that the position of the parents should be paramount,” he said. “It’s certainly not a black-and-white case.”
Following the appeals court’s decision, the parents still have the option to appeal to the Law Lords, Britain’s highest court.