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January 28, 2014


This is a heartbreaking situation, and one for which a firm "rule" would be helpful, so that the decision-makers have some of the "playing God" conditions removed from their realm. I cannot imagine keeping a dead body viable for the sake of acting like an incubator. It's just too horrible to contemplate. We cannot know what Marlene would have wanted to do, and we do not have the right to impose our own preferences on her, as she was unable to state her wishes.

I learned from one note I got back from a physical that the term "harvesting" is being replaced by the word "procuring".

There is, I think, a further complicating factor, which is - what (if any) are the effects on the developing fetus, depending on how long the fetus needs in order to reach a state where it could viably exist ex utero, in the body of the deceased? Would the child suffer from physical and/or cognitive issues following birth? Is the environment of the womb more than just an"incubator", but also a dynamic environment where the emotional ebbs and flows of the mother play a vital role in the developing brain and other organs of the fetus?

Issues surrounding the viability of unborn fetuses were, at one time, rather more straightforward - if the mother died, unless the child was on the verge of birth and an emergency cesarean could be performed (with a high infant mortality rate depending on the period in history), the fetus would die. QED.

With the advent of medical advances, we are in uncharted territory. To my thinking, maintaining minimal bodily functions to keep the mother around as a biological incubator is dehumanizing and a violation of human dignity.

Nonetheless - the pain of a father who loses both his wife and unborn child is almost unimaginable to me. If the body of the mother is kept functioning in order to enable the fetus to develop to viability, at least the father would have the solace of the child in his life. This, however, might also present issues - for example, is it possible that the father would have resentment or some psychological slight against the child surrounding the issues of his/her birth, and how those issues might play out in the shaping of the mind and life of the child.

I have no answer to the issue, except my emotional stance that it is wrong to maintain the body as an incubator.

On a tangent - with respect to halakha - if the mother passed away prior to the child's birth (if the incubator approach is seized upon), is the child halakhicaly (sp?) Jewish? Such a child would not come through the birth canal and would need to be cesarean delivered from a deceased mother. And, if the child were to be considered Jewish, would other things within Jewish law also pass - for example, were the child born to a Kohain, would that inheritance pass to the child? What about the strictures regarding the Kohanim and contact with the dead?

To return to the main point from your post - my inclination is to say that it is wrong to maintain the machinery of the body functioning in order to ensure the life of the developing fetus. It divorces us from vital parts of our animal nature which then get carried forward and affect the rest of the child's life - e.g., preemies born in the 1940s were placed immediately into incubation chambers, but not touched. In many cases, this seems to have contributed to emotional developmental issues which can be life shattering. I personally know an individual who was a preemie in the 1940s and the lack of physical attention has had marked effects on the adult life of the individual - a large part of my opinion on this derived from observation of the person and their interactions with siblings who were not born prematurely. The situation can only be exacerbated, I think, if the mother died prior to the child's birth.

I apologize for the lack of focus in this post - I am multitasking and should probably be paying attention to my job...but this is much more interesting....

In response to the comment from Gina Vega - I am not sure that we can establish firm rules around these issues currently. Technological innovation and development is occurring at an increasingly dizzying rate. If you read some of the writing of Ray Kurzweil on the idea of the singularity, as well as writings of the transhumanists, or look at some of the cutting edge work in the biological sciences and their increasing use of cybernetics, even the very definition of who is a human can come into question. With these kind of tools at our disposal and how quickly new tools can be developed, I do not think we will have time to put rules in place that address new innovations with respect to medicine as the pace of invention increases - at least not easily.

The question of who decides such things - maintaining the body's functions despite brain death - becomes thorny, to say the least, I think. Should the state legislate whether or not a father "pulls the plug" on the body of his wife, ensuring the death of viable fetus, or allows the potential mercy of letting the fetus continue to develop and be brought into this world. Is it right to deny the surviving parent the chance to have his child in his life following the loss of his wife?

With respect to religious law and practices - the deciders would have to be very, very careful. They cannot be so old and learned as to be divorced from the visceral and emotional aspects of these kinds of situations, nor so far out of touch with the realities of the technological state of the world to be incapable of understanding what the technology is doing and where it will go (assuming the desire is to make forward looking laws and not simply answer the questions of the moment).

The issue of the rights and wishes of Marlene pose an interesting problem. Whose wishes have primacy - the surviving father seeking for the fetus to be born, the deceased wife or the fetus (though the last is covered, to my understanding, by halakhah as Rabbi Jon wrote with respect to saving the wife of the mother or the fetus in dangerous births - I assume it carries through to the existence or non-existence of rights for a fetus in situations similar to this).

I fear that, as time goes on, these kind of issues will become more common and even more difficult to resolve. For example, in utero genetic manipulation in order to prevent a Down's Syndrome child being born by "correcting" the damaged sequences - is the geneticist playing G-d, despite the positive outcome? Are they overstepping bounds that should be reserved for the Creator? Or - is this what we are SUPPOSED to be doing? Are we supposed to discover technologies to extend life, better it and bring it into the world...even if the vehicle of transmission of life is from one dead?

I have no real idea of how situations like this can effectively, humanely and halakhically (sp?) be addressed.

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