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Medical Ethics Society Conference Explores the Intersection of Patient Autonomy and Jewish Law

On Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, over 250 people attended the 13th Annual Medical Ethics Society (MES) Conference presented by the YU Student Medical Ethics Society and the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?” examined Jewish perspectives on patient autonomy and decision-making in modern medicine.
(l-r): Tzvi Cantor and Bailey Frohlich
The conference opened with remarks by the co-presidents of MES, Bailey Frohlich ’20S and Tzvi Cantor ’21YC, who welcomed the audience. Rabbi Yaakov Glasser ’99YC, ’01R, ’05A, the David Mitzner Dean of CJF, addressed the audience and was followed by the conference chairman, Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman ’86YC, ’90E, ’97R, who introduced the honoree of the conference, Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler ’48R, the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics, a professor of biology at YU and a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). The conference, sponsored by the Community Synagogue of Monsey, was in honor of Rabbi Tendler, who spoke about risk and patient autonomy in Talmudic law.

Session 1

The first panel featured Dr. Richard Grazi, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology at Maimonides Medical Center and Founder of GENESIS, and Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss ’83YC, ’96R, adjunct instructor in biology at Stern College for Women and rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest. Their panel was titled Patient Autonomy Versus Physician Autonomy In Assisted Reproductive Technology and addressed questions such as how an Orthodox physician can navigate his or her patient’s request to perform elective Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) for sex determination, or what to do when a single woman asks for donor insemination.
(l-r): Dr. Richard Grazi and Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss
Dr. Grazi spoke about various case studies he has seen in his practice in which the patient’s wishes conflicted with his own religious beliefs. Both he and Dr. Weiss then evaluated each case and discussed the halachic [Jewish legal] issues that arise in similar situations as well as possible clinical approaches to resolving the ethical issues of autonomy faced by physicians. After the panel concluded, a comment by a member of the audience mirrored the feeling of many when he stated, “The miracle of birth is a miracle of birth, no matter how it is achieved.”

Session 2

The second session, titled Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS): Ethics, Legality and Halakha, featured Dr. Susan Cohen, medical director of palliative care at Bellevue Hospital and associate professor of the Department of Medicine at NYU-Langone; Assemblyman Gary Schaer, deputy speaker in the New Jersey State Assembly and vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee; and Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman ’96YC, ’98R, rosh yeshiva at RIETS.
(l-r): Dr. Susan Cohen, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, and Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman
Dr. Cohen discussed the medical ethics of PAS and the physician-patient interaction during end-of-life care. Assemblyman Schaer then presented the legal arguments that arose for and against the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act passed by the New Jersey State Legislature in August 2019. He spoke movingly about his personal experience with regards to his father and the issues and challenges he faced in his voting decision. Rounding out the discussion was Rabbi Feldman, who explored the halachic aspects of PAS, end-of-life situations and balancing compassion with Jewish law.

Session 3

The third and final session discussed Navigating Cases of Diminished Capacity with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients and featured Dr. Hannah Lipman, director of Bioethics at Hackensack University Medical Center and associate professor at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University; and Rabbi Mordechai Willig ’68YC, ’71R, the Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth Professor of Talmud and Contemporary Halakhah, rosh yeshiva at the Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies, rosh kollel at RIETS, and spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Riverdale.
(l-r): Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Dr. Hannah Lipman
Dr. Lipman discussed the challenges involved in dealing with patients who have dementia, such as who makes medical decisions for the patient when the patient is no longer capable of making such decisions for himself or herself, whether the patient’s wishes in their current state of limited capacity conflict with their own past wishes, and how a physician can facilitate shared decision-making between elderly patients and various family members who have conflicting opinions. Following Dr. Lipman’s presentation, Rabbi Willig discussed the halakhic questions that arise when dealing with patients and family members who have dementia and cannot entirely express their own opinions. The yearly conference is considered highly relevant for members of the Jewish community, since many of the issues explored are compounded by halachic considerations that require the guidance of rabbinic authority. “As Rabbi Tendler introduced the theme of Jewish law and autonomy, I looked out at our captivated audience of over 250 students, physicians and community members and realized that our countless hours of hard work paid off,” said Frohlich. “Based on our attendance, robust Q&A sessions with the speakers and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received, I felt that we successfully generated a positive and productive conversation about these increasingly sensitive and nuanced medical ethics issues, thus achieving the mission of the YU Medical Ethics Society.” She added, “By bringing in leading physicians, rabbis, ethicists, lawmakers and scientists who are experts in their respective fields, MES looks forward to presenting future informative and thought-provoking conferences in order to provide YU students and surrounding community members with a deeper insight into how to navigate complex medical ethics topics.”
Members of the Student Medical Ethics Society