By: Aviva Klahr  | 

17th Annual Medical Ethics Conference Held on Wilf Campus

The Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society held its 17th annual conference on Wilf Campus Sunday. The student-run group organized the conference, with this year’s program exploring various ethical, legal and halachic questions concerning patient autonomy. 

The morning opened with an address from President Ari Berman, followed by welcoming remarks from Medical Ethics Society Presidents Rivka Shapiro (SCW ‘24) and Ariel Retter (YC ‘24). Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, YU chair of Medical Ethics, introduced the theme of the event, “Autonomy in Medicine.” 

The goal of the theme was to inform, Shapiro explained. “While many of the students in this room are future medical health professionals,” said Shapiro, “we are all patients, and for that reason, we must all be informed.”

The first speech, by Dr. Rachel Nissanholtz-Gannot, head of the Health Systems Management department at Ariel University and a researcher at the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, discussed the complexity of Israel’s recent “Embryo Mix-Up” legal case. Dr. Nissanholtz-Gannot explained the details of the case, where a woman was mistakenly implanted with an embryo genetically unrelated to her, with the original embryo unable to be tracked down. Nissanholtz-Gannot explored complicated questions such as whether the courts should require a continued search for the child’s biological parents, whether that decision should be reevaluated after the child is born, and, if the genetic parents are found, which couple should receive custody. She outlined the different forms of parent-child connection, analyzed the case from each lens, and took serious note of the significant emotional turmoil that would result from all of the possible conclusions. 

The second session, titled “Is Organ Donation Obligatory?”, was led by Rabbi Daniel Feldman, a rosh yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). Rabbi Feldman explored questions of halachic obligations concerning living organ donation, such as when, and at what risk, must a person donate his or her organ to save another. He approached the issue through the lenses of the Torah’s prohibition “do not stand by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16)” and its value “love your fellow as yourself” (19:18). He delineated the nuances of this discussion by outlining contrasting perspectives in the Talmud and among early poskim, noting that this same conversation must be ongoing as technologies and issues of safety change over time. Rabbi Feldman expanded the conversation to include further variables such as payment, parental relation to the transplant receiver and whether a donor always has the autonomy to decide for himself or herself. 

The third session, titled “Patient Autonomy as to Autopsies: Exploring the Debate,” featured Rabbi Saul Berman, a prolific author and professor of ethics and law at Stern College for Women (SCW) and Columbia Law School. In addition to discussing the prohibition of desecrating the dead, Rabbi Berman focused on the issue of when it is halachically permissible for one to waive the rights of protection to their body after death. Rabbi Berman explored rabbinic discussions regarding autopsies, analyzing the underlying assumptions and exploring ways to interpret them. Rabbi Berman concluded by addressing the lack of clarity in the search for halachic answers in modern times where debates cannot be resolved and there is no longer coherence with psak halacha

“What the halacha has become is no longer a single point of a spectrum,” said Rabbi Berman. “It’s a range of opinions. The halacha is now the parameters and boundaries of the debate.” 

Rabbi Berman applied the theme of autonomy to each individual in their own fundamental pursuit of halacha, stressing the importance for each person to know these parameters and have both the intellectual and spiritual integrity in choosing who to ask questions to, as well as taking an active part in which conclusion will become their own. 

“While it may not have been initially intended that way,” stated Rabbi Berman, “the diversity that has manifested in contemporary debated halacha is not just a bug, it is an asset of the system itself and we must treat it that way.”

The following session, led by Dr. Beth Popp, an oncologist and professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, analyzed issues of patient autonomy from the bedside perspective, pointing out where the teachings of medical schools often differ from those of halacha. She covered the topics of understanding how autonomy fits into the principles of bioethics, how it relates to decision-making by patients themselves, what happens when a patient cannot make their own decisions and questions regarding medical aid in dying. Dr. Popp outlined the medical and legal system’s conclusive processes, as well as its challenges, in reaching decisions regarding presumed patient consent, delegating decision-making in place of the patient and what factors to base that decision on. She addressed the growing rates of physician-assisted suicide and the complexity it brings to both patients and physicians with varying values. 

The final session, titled “Patient Autonomy Regarding Risky Surgery for the Elderly,” featured Rabbi Chaim Jachter, rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Orah in New Jersey, a teacher at TABC and dayan on the Beit Din of Elizabeth, NJ. Rabbi Jachter explored the parameters of risking one’s life for a procedure that can potentially elongate his or her life. He tracked the discussion, starting from the Tanach through the Talmud, and a variety of later poskim. He explored the tension in Jewish thought between understanding humans as autonomous beings versus guardians over their bodies. 

Retter reflected on the event, telling The Commentator that he felt the event was a success.

“This was an incredible day, not only for the Medical Ethics Society,” said Retter, “but for everyone from the YU community and beyond who came to the event. As students, we dedicate much of our day to learning about the technical aspects of science and medicine. Sunday’s conference was an opportunity to focus on how those ideas can be put into practice to help people in an ethical way.” 


Photo Caption: Students part of the Medical Ethics Society board and Rabbi Reichman, Conference Chairman and Faculty Advisor

Photo Credit: Bella Wiener / Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society