HODS on IBA News
Robby Berman – Jan. 2011, Waking up from brain death
[4 minutes 25 seconds]
The recent passing of Israeli soccer legend Avi Cohen in a motorcycle accident has revived the debate over organ donation. Even though Cohen carried a donor card, his family at the behest of several rabbis, decided not to honor his wishes. The Knesset has passed two bills that mandate the removal of organs from all those who do sign donor cards, despite their survivor’s approval, and also provides financial compensation to live organ donors. Joining us now in the studio to discuss this legislation is the founder of the Halachic Organ Donor Society, Robby Berman.
Good evening, Robby.
Hi, how are you.
Good, thanks. Tell me, are you hoping that this legislation will remove all of the rights and objections, potentially, of next of kin from someone who’s passed away if they sign a donor card?
First I want to say, I express my sympathies to the Cohen family and I don’t think anyone should be coerced into donating organs or misled by rabbis not to donate organs. I think it’s ridiculous for a rabbi to tell a family whose loved one has lost a limb that they should pray for the limb to grow back – no one’s limb has ever grown back – so, too, no one has ever woken up from brain stem death and it’s ridiculous to tell the family, ‘we’re going to pray for them, he’s going to come back.’
I think it is bad public policy to try to coerce people and tell people – if a family wants to believe in a superstition, that’s their right, and I don’t think we should leg– I’m more into education and not legislation. I don’t think we should legislate forcing people, in objection, in the face of objection of the family who has just overcome this tragedy, to say that we are going to forcibly remove the organs of your loved ones. There have been cases in Israel where family members have attacked doctors; I imagine there is going to be an incredible amount of violence. If you have a family that does not accept brain stem death as death and the doctors are going in anyway to take out the organs, I think it is bad public policy.
So, what are your thoughts on this legislation? How do you feel about what has just been passed?
Again, I’m not into legislation, I’m more into education. I think journalists can actually play a big role – TV journalists and print journalists, stop using the word – the term ‘life support’, it’s a ventilator. When a doctor comes out or journalists get on the news and they say someone is on life support, it implies that the person is alive. If their brain is dead, they’re not alive. The organism has died but the organs are alive. When you call it life support, you’re doing damage, so I think if we put a ban on the term ‘life support’, we can really help educate the public that a person who is brain-dead is not really alive, he’s dead and the organs are being kept going for another few days before they, too, die – and then the question is, what do you want to do with the organs? Do you want to donate them or not donate them?
Robby, let’s talk about the organ sale of living donors. How do you respond to criticism that this promotes organ harvesting of the poor for those who are financially better off?
Yeah, you know, that’s a big issue. Most of the rabbis say that to do a mitzvah is a mitzvah and it doesn’t matter if you get paid money to do a mitzvah, it’s still a mitzvah. So, I mean, I think there is exploitation of the poor and I think that people who want to sell their organs should be allowed to do it but I think there should be a cooling off period. I think they should be given substantial compensation and I think we should look out for that slippery slope, but by and large I’m not in opposition to that, I’m in favor, but it is illegal and until the law is passed, we’re not involved with that.
In the time that we have left, can you tell us what Jewish law says about organ donation?
Uh, there is a debate, most rabbis – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative – all say donating organs is a mitzvah, it’s a good deed. The debate is surrounding brain death, is a brain-dead patient alive or dead? The chief Rabbi of Israel- The Chief Rabbinate of Israel- has stepped up to the plate and said a brain-dead patient is dead and they should donate organs to the general public whether it be Arab, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, it doesn’t matter, and that’s what we’re trying to focus on and educate people.
Unfortunately, there are rabbis in America, the Rabbinical Council of America came out with a document that mislead people into thinking you can wake up from brain death. There was a case in London a few weeks ago, where the London Beit Din had impact on a family not donating organs because they thought a brain-dead patient was not dead. I think this is a great hypocrisy, if you want to reject brain-death as death, that’s fine, that’s your option, but then don’t allow your congregation to put themselves on the waiting list and say ‘well we won’t donate organs because brain death is alive, so we don’t want to kill ourselves,’ but then allow you to go and take organs from other people, ostensibly non-Jews. That’s hypocritical, it’s racist, and it should not be something that the community puts up with.
Robby Berman of the Halachic Organ Donor Society, thank you so much for being our guest and sharing your insights, it’s a tough issue.