Court in Israel Backs Euthanasia For Elderly, Disabled Patient

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 16, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Court in Israel Backs Euthanasia For Elderly, Disabled Patient

by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
July 16, 2004

Tel Aviv, Israel ( — In a decision that could have far-reaching implications in Israel, a court in Tel Aviv has cleared the way for euthanasia to be carried out on a disabled elderly man.

This week, Judge Uri Goren of the Tel Aviv Regional Court ruled that a brain-damaged man in his early 70s could be detached from the machines that are keeping him alive — even though he left no written instructions to do so.

Goren said he relied on testimony from members of the man’s family, who said the patient twice expressed the wish not to have his life artificially lengthened.

“Even though the petitioner can no longer feel any pain in his present condition, I find that his desire to not live on artificial life support, should be respected," Goren said in issuing his decision.

However, in previous cases, the court had approved the use of euthanasia only if the patient had provided written consent in a will.

"The court was required to rule in a difficult and painful issue which contains characteristics that are not purely legal," Goren wrote in his opinion. "This case touches on human suffering which raises the difficult and tense conflict between the sanctity of life and the advancement in medical technology and the personal autonomy of the patient who asks not to continue extending his life through artificial means."

The patient’s name is being kept confidential because of a gag order. His wife, who had petitioned the court to have him removed from life support, burst into tears after the ruling.

Authorities say the man suffered cardiac arrest seven months ago and has never regained full brain function. Press reports described him as being in a “vegetative state,” but a number of medical experts object to such terminology, noting that it is often inaccurate and misleading.

They note that there have been a number of cases in which patients have managed to regain consciousness against the odds.

The judge stopped short of ordering the man’s starvation, ruling that caregivers must continue to feed him.

One of the man’s sons told the press that there is “not one doctor who says there is even a slim chance that he can return to consciousness."

"We hesitated for a very long time; this is not an easy thing," the son said. "It causes me sleepless nights. You see that there’s no end — you see people in the hospital ward for
a year, a year and two months, and you see a person that is just finished and wasting away, and you say, enough already, enough.”

Before his stroke, the man had apparently had several health scares in recent years.

In 2001, he and his wife were involved in a serious car accident which left him unconscious. When he awakened, he reportedly told his family he did not want to ever be sustained by artificial life support. Last year, during a vacation in the Dead Sea, the man nearly drowned and was resuscitated by a doctor. After he regained consciousness, he reportedly told his son he did not want to live on life support.

However, as the prosecution pointed out, the man apparently never documented his wish in writing. His family claims they were unaware the law required a written will in order for life support to be removed.

The man’s wife was quoted as saying, “He’s dead. He’s not alive. He’s laying in bed and rotting. He doesn’t respond. He’s paralyzed. For how long must we watch this?"

The prosecution noted, however, there was no indication that, in the present case, the man wanted to be disconnected from life support.

While the judge has said the decision should not be seen as a precedent, press reports indicate it is already being interpreted that way