A landmark decision was handed down in Houston, Texas last week as a judge ruled in favor of upholding the right of a Jewish family to prevent an autopsy on their deceased relative – a middle-aged man who had suddenly passed away in his sleep. The victory was the first of its kind for the Orthodox Jewish community of Texas, where – unlike in states like New York, Ohio, Maryland, and Rhode Island – no language in the law explicitly prevents an autopsy from taking place when it infringes on religious concerns. Encouraged by the favorable decision in this case, Orthodox activists intend to push for such legislation when the State legislature reconvenes in 2009.
The judge’s ruling in last week’s case was based, in part, on the legal argument presented by the family’s attorney – Mr. Gregg Rosenberg, Esq. – that the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as applied to this case, prohibits a medical examiner or coroner from performing a post-mortem procedure if it violates the religious beliefs of the decedent and his family. The Texas statute permits an exception to this rule only if government “demonstrates that application of the burden is both in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest [and] [t]he least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” The Judge ruled that this case clearly did not present any “compelling interest” that would warrant performing an autopsy against the wishes of the decedent’s religious family.
When handing down his decision, the judge also commended Rabbi Asher Block, director of the Texas regional office of Agudath Israel of America, for his “succinct and compelling testimony” on the Jewish perspective regarding the desecration of a body and the traumatizing effect of post-mortem procedures on a religious family.
Rabbi Block had been contacted by the family of the decedent after the body was taken to the local medical examiner’s office and an autopsy to determine the cause of death was scheduled for early the following day. Rabbi Block, in turn, contacted Mr. Rosenberg, who offered to take on the case pro bono.
Mr. Rosenberg immediately requested, and was granted, a court injunction to prevent the autopsy from taking place. The chief medical examiner challenged the injunction, however, arguing that the cause of death could not be adequately determined without the post-mortem procedure. Rabbi Block, who had filed an affidavit clearly stating the relevant rabbinic sources prohibiting the performance of an autopsy on a Jewish body, offered oral testimony describing the Jewish belief in an eventual reuniting of the soul with its body and that any mutilation of the “physical casing of the soul” causes great “spiritual and emotional grief and anguish for the deceased, the family and the Jewish community.”
In response to the medical examiner’s attorney’s contention that the Biblical injunction, “an eye for an eye” implies Jewish law’s acceptance of organ removal, Rabbi Block explained the Talmud’s teaching that the verse is not intended literally but rather means that the value of the victim’s eye must be appraised and monetary compensation awarded.
“Rabbi Block’s quick thinking and composure under pressure were critical in this very serious case of medical halacha,” noted Dr. Zev Munk, president of the Houston-based Agudath Israel of Texas Advisory Board. “This most significant ruling is a credit both to the importance of the Texas regional office and the hard work and perseverance of Agudath Israel representatives throughout the country,”
“The Houston Orthodox Jewish community’s incredible support and assistance in this very delicate matter only adds to its reputation as an exceptional group of caring and special individuals,” says Rabbi Block, who credits Mr. Rosenberg; Rabbi Yossi Grossman, Rosh Kollel of the Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston (TORCH)/Houston Community Kollel; Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, associate director of Chabad Outreach of Texas; and Rabbis Edgar and Zvi Gluck of New York for their extraordinary efforts on behalf of the deceased’s family. “The large crowd of people that crammed into the courtroom during the hearing unquestionably helped reinforce my testimony regarding the importance of this issue to the Torah community.”