Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Tammuz 5759 - June 30 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Two Pieces About the Value Attached to Life in Modern Times

Editor's Note: These two essays deal with separate but interrelated issues of the basic value of human life and how it is perceived by modern society. The Torah, of course, has a very different approach, and it constantly behooves us to clarify and recall this for ourselves, since the modern world is often so decadent in this important value.

The Remarkable Comeback of a Dead Man
by Chaim Bloom

Until slightly more than a year ago, Bill Morgan was no different than any other resident of Australia, his birthplace. He worked hard for his living as a truck driver and was happy when he managed to finish the month without an overdraft.

But then his truck became involved in an accident. As Bill was seated in the driver's cabin, an oncoming car smashed into him. He was crushed. As a result of the horrible accident, Bill suffered a fatal heart attack.

The injury was so severe that the ambulance crew arriving on the scene was certain that there was nothing left for them to do. Nonetheless, they attached him to their resuscitation apparatus and tried to stimulate his heart. For more than 14 minutes, Bill was in a situation defined as "clinical death." When his heart began to beat again, he was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for 12 days.

After that, and despite his serious injury, Bill's condition improved -- amazingly. Not only did he recover quickly, but despite the extreme state he had reached, he got up from his sick bed completely recovered and totally healthy, a very rare phenomenon.

After 12 months, during which he returned to work as usual, Bill decided that it was time for him to marry. Despite the grisly accident, the young lady of his choice was willing to marry him. The only question was: how would they manage financially?

A few days before the wedding, Bill Morgan bought a lottery ticket. "Who knows?" he told himself. "Perhaps I'll win."

And he won! He got a very considerable prize: a car worth 17 thousand dollars.

At that point, the media stepped into the picture. A truck driver who had been severely hurt in an accident, had suffered a very serious heart attack, had returned to life, and was about to be married -- had also won a very big prize in the lottery. That's an automatic human interest story for an empty corner of the newspaper. The press sought him out and asked him for details about the remarkable chain of events he had undergone.

In order to increase public interest in the story, a Melbourne TV station asked Bill to re-enact the moments in which he had purchased the winning lottery ticket. Goodhearted Bill readily complied. Before the cameras, he approached the stand, bought a ticket, and examined it, just like he had when he had bought his original winning ticket. Believe it or not -- he won again! Right before the television cameras. But this time, the grand prize wasn't a car but a quarter of a million Australian dollars, equivalent to about 170 thousand American dollars: ten times as much as his former prize. The first time, Bill had won a car. Now, he had enough money to buy a house for himself and his future wife.

It's not always easy to stand at the side and rejoice in the good fortune of someone else. But this time, even the reporters were pleased. This double win, especially after the serious medical problems Bill had undergone, constituted a very juicy story for the viewers, who are always eager for amazing and heartwarming stories.

So why does such a story come to Yated Ne'eman? Because of an additional "small" detail, which we haven't yet mentioned.

While Bill Morgan was lying in the hospital in a coma those first 12 days, surrounded by his broken-hearted relatives, one of the senior doctors turned to them and gently explained: "His situation is critical. The likelihood that he'll recover is zero. In the meantime, the patient is alive only because of the life-support apparatus that is running the systems of his body. Even if he recovers, he'll probably be an unfortunate cripple, who will say that it would have been better if he had died. Isn't it preferable for his beloved family to permit the hospital to detach him from the apparatus? Anyway, he'll probably die within a short while. And if he remains alive, as a cripple dependent on the mercies of others, will you be able to look him in the eye and explain why you didn't arrange for him to be detached from the apparatus before he awoke? Isn't it better to save money and hospital resources and to make this costly apparatus available for other patients who might need it?"

We weren't present at that occasion and didn't hear the doctor's exact explanation. We can only speculate on the exact words of the doctor -- carefully chosen phrases characteristic of professionals of that sort the world over -- just as we can only picture the expressions of the frightened family when they heard his remarks. It's not difficult to imagine their shock over the accident and then their happiness over Bill's remarkable comeback after he had been considered clinically dead for 14 long minutes. One can only imagine their despair upon hearing the medical explanation and the recommendation to murder him -- pardon me -- which in medical terminology is referred to as "mercy killing."

We also don't know why the family refused the hospital's "generous" offer, nor precisely what persuaded them to insist on continuing to take care of Bill, even though the doctor had given him no chance of pulling through.

We only know that they did the right thing and all of Australia agrees with us, mainly because of the spectacular double prize that he eventually won in the lottery.

Had Bill not won the lottery twice, would the Australians still have nodded their heads and said: "It's good that they didn't detach him from the life-support apparatus"?

And now to the biggest question of all: Will anyone in Australia -- or anywhere in the world or even someone from the medical profession -- derive the correct conclusions from this story, which is that life and death, and a person's entire fate, for the good and for the bad, are in the hands of Shomayim, and that doctors have permission to heal, but not to kill?

Day of the Living Dead

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Had it been cheap fiction instead of tragic real life, the case of Georgette Smith would have strained credulity.

Shirley Egan, a frail, elderly woman, outraged by her daughter Ms. Smith's plans to place her in a nursing home, shoots the 42-year-old woman she raised from birth. As if that weren't lurid enough, the daughter, paralyzed from the neck down, later insists on being removed from life support equipment and obtains a Florida court order to force the reluctant hospital to comply with her wishes. The machines are disconnected and the patient dies.

The coup de grace: it was subsequently reported that prosecutors were weighing a murder charge against the mother.

In the end, however, the Florida state attorney decided that Ms. Egan's "deteriorating health, and her relationship with the victim, do not provide an appropriate circumstance" for a murder charge.

His decision was correct, but for chillingly wrong reasons.

Ms. Egan is innocent of murder not because of her health or her relationship to her daughter, but because she didn't kill her.

There is a frightening, if subtle, statement in the willingness to even consider murder charges against Ms. Egan.

Consider: Were an assailant to cause, say, loss of limb, and the victim subsequently declared life not worth living without the arm or a leg, forever maimed and unable to function as most people do, and then proceeded to commit suicide, can we imagine murder charges being brought against the attacker?

One would hope not.

While punishing the attacker for the injury to the fullest extent of the law, we would, however, rightfully put responsibility for the death on the one who effected it, in this case the deceased.

Why then, is it not just as obvious that Ms. Smith, who likewise made the choice to die -- indeed obtained a judge's imprimatur to secure it -- is alone responsible for her own death?

Granted, her mother assaulted her, grievously. But murder? She horribly injured her daughter, but she did not kill her. Or did she?

Is relegating a physically active human being to a life of paralysis, of boredom and dependency on others, the equivalent of the termination of meaningful life itself?

It is in the moment's hesitation before that question is answered that the danger to us all lurks. Because the answer is no, and it should come swift and strong.

Life is not jumping or running or climbing, at least not for human beings. It is not even walking or being able to lift one's hand, important though mobility and dexterity may be to most of us. Our most meaningful living is done in our minds and our souls.

There is a gentleman, now of Jerusalem who, like Ms. Smith, is paralyzed from neck down. The injury that resulted in his condition was suffered in a freak swimming accident; he had been a promising athlete before the day, many years ago, when a diver landed on his back.

His first thoughts, like those of Ms. Smith, had been plans for suicide. But he had been less able to accomplish the deed. Though he begged those close to him to help him end his life, they refused. Court assistance likely never crossed his mind. Decades ago, in any event, it would not likely have been forthcoming.

Today, though, the swimmer has not only come to terms with his condition but actually considers his accident to have been the most fortunate occurrence in his life.

He explains that, after his initial anger and hopelessness subsided, his paralysis forced him to confront, deeply and seriously, the question of whether athletic prowess, or even basic mobility, had defined the very meaning of his pre- accident life.

After many days of contemplating that question, in anything but a theoretical sense, he found himself forced to concede that a life defined by physical activity was a rather silly notion.

What then was life really about?

His further thought -- and consultation, and study -- led him to the traditions of the Jewish faith into which he had been born.

His paralysis, he feels, was a well-disguised gift. He is chilled by the thought that a well-meaning relative or friend might have successfully helped him effect his demise years ago, in the first days of his new life.

It is too late for Ms. Smith to acclimate to a new life, of course, she received the "help" she sought all too promptly and efficiently. But her dismissal of the value of a physically limited life was only a tragic personal mistake.

If her mother, though, is perceived by the law and the society it serves as guilty of something more than attempted murder, as having effectively ended a human life, then we are well on the way toward missing the most essential meaning of our humanity.

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