I recently heard an episode of the BBC's "The Truth About Life and Death":

"When Are We Dead?"

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026tsmh

... Claudia visits Jerusalem in Israel to explore how the religions there, shaped over many centuries, have adapted to medical advances at the end of life. She discovers how Ariel Sharon’s final years, ventilated to keep him alive, illustrate the pivotal role religion plays....

With unique access, Claudia visits Herzog hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where patients lie in beds, kept alive on ventilators. Many are unconscious but some are aware of their surroundings. She hears from the families of patients, some who have been there for many years....

[me again:] The Israeli government has long depended on Orthodox Jewish participation in coalitions, with the result of giving religion undue influence in many aspects of life in Israel.* The Jewish law against hastening death therefore shaped the Israeli law that forbids withdrawal of life-sustaining care (such as turning off a ventilator) while the patient is alive, even if he or she does not want it continued, or has no hope of regaining consciousness.

The show mentioned that withholding a discrete unit of life-prolonging treatment (such as not giving a round of dialysis) isn't prohibited by the law, and that in many other countries withholding and withdrawal are considered the same, legally and ethically.

It also discussed a timer being developed that would turn ventilator treatment into discrete "units" of two weeks, a month, six months, or whatever other period was set. A patient who's hopelessly suffering and doesn't want their ventilator continued, or a family who sees no hope for a person in a chronic coma, would be able to legally choose to let the current unit of treatment run its course, without having it turned on again afterwards.

(Read the BBC's summary and listen to the show: "When Are We Dead")

Photo credit: by kind permission of Herzog Hospital.

Hiddush ("For Religious Freedom and Equality") is a broad reform group working to fix the "unholy alliance" of religion and politics in Israel.

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