A heart-wrenching legal battle taking place in Alameda County has made headlines across the country, and serves as a powerful reminder of the need for stronger legal protection for the religious rights of patients and their family members.
After undergoing what family members insist was a routine tonsillectomy in an Oakland hospital to help with her sleep apnea, 13-year-old Jahi McMath began to bleed heavily for hours. According to the child’s mother, hospital staff didn’t answer her pleas for a doctor, and the surgeon who did the procedure never returned to the recovery room. Within days, McMath was declared brain dead, and the hospital wanted to remove her from life support.
Jahi’s family wants to keep her hooked up to a respirator and eventually have her moved to another facility. They say they believe she is still alive, and the hospital should not remove her from the ventilator without their permission.
“It’s wrong for someone who made mistakes on your child to just call the coroner … and not respect the family’s feeling or rights,” the child’s grandmother told reporters.
“Pulling the plug, according to our poskim, is retzichah [tantamount to murder],” says Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Vice President for Community Affairs for Agudath Israel of America and one of the founders of Chayim Aruchim: Center for Culturally Sensitive End-of-Life Advocacy and Counseling. He pointed out that New York State Department of Health regulations require hospitals to establish and implement a written policy that includes a procedure “for the reasonable accommodation” of family members who have a religious objection to the diagnosis of brain death.
“Maimonides Medical Center and NorthShore LIJ have a religious protocol that mechanical ventilation will be continued until cardiac death occurs,” Rabbi Lefkowitz added.
California law also calls for hospitals to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate religious and cultural practices and concerns, but adds that “in determining what is reasonable, a hospital shall consider the needs of other patients and prospective patients in urgent need of care.”
On Monday, Judge Evelio Grillo ordered the hospital to keep treating McMath for another week as a second medical evaluation is conducted.
We urge the court to order the hospital to respect the beliefs and wishes of the family in question, and we appeal to hospitals across the country to adopt religious protocols similar to that of Maimonides Medical Center and NorthShore LIJ.
It isn’t only a matter of religious liberties. It is literally the difference between life and death.