Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi has called for certain post-mortem procedures to be phased out after it was revealed that a Jewish man was buried without his brain — unbeknownst to his family and contrary to Jewish law.
Jonathan Sacks made the call after publication of the so-called Isaacs Report, a three-year government study showing that tens of thousands of brains were removed from British corpses without their relatives’ consent.
The report focused on a resident of Manchester, Cyril Isaacs, who committed suicide in 1987 and whose brain was removed for medical research into mental illness. He had suffered from depression.
His family was unaware of the organ removal when he was given a Jewish burial. The revelation only came to light in 2000 when his wife, Elaine, came upon a letter referring to the organ removal in his medical records.
Her cause was taken up by the queen’s inspector of anatomy, Dr. Jeremy Metters, who revealed that more than 20,000 brains had been removed without consent since the 1960s.
In Manchester, a university professor used the brains for a research program into schizophrenia.
Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, the chief rabbi’s adviser on medical ethics, described the scandal as a “severe crime.” He explained that to remove any organ from the body without consent is an “unwarranted desecration of the body” and that the “Jewish body must be buried with the correct dignity.”
There are three prerequisites for organ removal according to Jewish law, Rapoport said: if consent is given; if removal would save the life of a donor; and if the organ is used for the “immediate benefit” of a recipient.
None of these prerequisites was met in the Isaacs case.
Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders were asked to submit their recommendations to Metters’ report. The report said there were concerns that “organ retention prevents disposal of the body in accordance with the religious observance of the deceased.”
Meanwhile, the government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, apologized personally to Elaine Isaacs for the pain the discovery had caused her family.
Speaking at a news conference, Isaacs said she was angry with the difficulties she encountered getting the scandal into the public domain.
“I had to fight so hard to get this whole situation recognized. Our rights have been taken away, my husband’s and thousands of others’ “
She added that while religious considerations should be taken into account, the issue of organ retention was overwhelmingly an ethical one.
“It is not about being Jewish, Muslim or Christian, it’s about basic human rights,” she said.
For its part, the Labor government announced new legislation to tighten controls on organ retention.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.