Show of Solidarity at Court Hearing in Toronto Life-Support Case

Toronto life support
A section of the huge crowd at the courthouse.

Hundreds of members of Toronto’s Orthodox community turned out to attend a court hearing as a show of support for a family engaged in a legal struggle to stop doctors from removing life supporting treatments from their son. At the end of the proceeding, an Ontario judge enforced an agreement reached by the hospital and the family’s lawyers to continue caring for Shalom Ouanounou as the case moves through the legal system.

“The show of support is indicative of how important this issue is, not only the issue of the young man’s life, but the broader concern of seeing that religious beliefs will be accommodated and respected under the law,” attorney Hugh Scher, who is representing the Ouanounou family, told Hamodia.

Mr. Ouanounou (Yochai Shalom Netanel ben Rivka), 25, suffered a severe asthma attack which led to cardiac arrest. He lost consciousness several weeks ago and was taken to Toronto’s Humber River Hospital for emergency treatment. Based on neurological tests, doctors determined that he was “brain dead” and issued a death certificate, while his heart and lungs were still functioning.

Based on their conclusions, physicians said that the hospital could no longer offer treatment and announced their intention to remove the patient from the respirator and other devices necessary to preserve his life.

Situations differ vastly, but many Rabbanim believe that what the medical profession calls “brain death” does not have any halachic validity, and there is a prohibition from taking any actions that would hasten death.

The Ouanounous objected to the hospital’s determination, citing that ceasing life support would violate Shalom’s beliefs and is thereby a violation of his religious rights.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the family and for the hospital met before a judge in an Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the province’s highest-level trial court. Due to the severity of the issue, several Toronto Rabbanim issued a call to members of the community to turn out in force at the hearing.

In response to their call, hundreds of people, including several prominent Rabbanim, did come to the courthouse, necessitating that the proceedings be moved to the building’s largest courtroom. Even so, many more were forced to stand outside after it quickly filled to capacity.

Charles Wagner, who is applying to act as an “intervener,” or expert attorney, in the case on behalf of the Vaad Harabbanim of Toronto and the Bnai Brith organization to focus of the halachic and human rights aspects of the case, was one of those present. He said that the show of support was significant on several fronts.

“The judge made it very clear that while there could be no misunderstandings about the agreement reached that doctors could not remove life support, it’s also important for the faith community to see that someone on the bench is listening to their concerns, and it gave chizuk to the family and to the community itself,” he told Hamodia.

In America, many states do allow hospitals to define the end of life as what the medical profession terms brain death. However in several states, including New York and New Jersey, exceptions are made for patients whose faiths do not subscribe to this definition. Yet most of Canada, including Ontario, have no statute on the books as to how death is to be defined.

“We’re essentially asking the court to give the same level of accommodation here that is given in the states which have the same cultural and social norms as we do,” said Mr. Scher. “Imagine that as it stands now, the same person could be considered dead in Canada and alive only 50 miles away in New York.”

The hospital maintains that in light of the death certificate, it is no longer obligated to provide treatment, but in accordance with today’s agreement will do so as the legal battle continues.