Jewish representatives have reacted with caution to a Supreme Court ruling allowing doctors and families to agree to withdraw hydration and food from those in a permanent vegetative state without legal permission.
The landmark legal case raises an ethical question in the Jewish community, said the Board of Deputies’ medical adviser, who said the organisation “will look at the judges’ ruling in detail to understand its full implications for end-of-life care”.
University College London’s Emeritus Professor of Immunopathology David Katz, speaking on behalf of the Board, said there were conflicting principles to consider.
“Judaism upholds the principle of sanctity of life,” he said. “When confronted with a seriously ill patient, the default Jewish option is a presumption in favour of saving life. At the same time, Judaism is also sensitive to the very real issues of suffering.”
He added: “Jewish teaching does not support futile treatment; but does regard a failure to provide for basic needs, including hydration, as unacceptably cruel.”
Other senior physicians, however, saw that the court as right to say that when families and doctors agree, medical staff can remove feeding tubes without applying to the Court of Protection.
Professor Stuart Stanton, president of the British Society of Urogynecology and former chairman of Hadassah UK, said: “I entirely agree with the Supreme Court verdict. As long as the family and doctors agree, we should respect that.”
He said there were several factors to consider. “The first thing is respect for the patient. The second very important issue is respect for the family, who are stood around not knowing what to do, seeing their family member in that state. A third issue, though less important, is demand for beds and huge pressure on the service.”
He added: “I agree with Professor Katz that saving life is very important, but there comes a time when more than one doctor agrees that there is no hope, when the family see that, and when the patient is permanently vegetative with no brain activity.”
Stanton said the court’s ruling could foreshadow a bigger national debate. “It prompts the question of euthanasia,” he said. “You’ve got people with terminal illnesses, in pain, having to go to Switzerland, and family members who accompany them arrested on their return. It believe parliament needs to debate it.”