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Life and Death: When Are we Dead?

The pivotal role religion plays in the treatment patients receive at the end of life, and even the point at which death is defined. Broadcast 24 September 2014.

Huge advances in technology now mean people can be kept alive longer, blurring the boundary between life and death. This intensifies the dilemmas for doctors, patients and their families. Different cultures and religions have reacted in a variety of ways - from preserving life at all costs, to euthanasia, with many countries sitting somewhere in between.

Claudia visits Jerusalem in Israel to explore how the religions there, shaped over many centuries, have adapted to medical advances at the end of life. She discovers how Ariel Sharon’s final years, ventilated to keep him alive, illustrate the pivotal role religion plays.

Jewish law forbids any act which could hasten a person’s death. So, unlike many countries around the world, Israeli law prohibits the withdrawal of life support, such as a ventilator, from patients who are dying. But the law also prevents ventilators from being withdrawn from patients who are not dying, who have been saved by modern medicine yet depend on a ventilator to breathe.

With unique access, Claudia visits Herzog hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where patients lie in beds, kept alive on ventilators. Many are unconscious but some are aware of their surroundings. She hears from the families of patients, some who have been there for many years.

It is only lawful to turn a ventilator off in Israel when a patient is confirmed dead. Yet fierce religious debate continues about how death should be actually defined. While ‘brain stem death’ criteria are usually used, there are sections of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community who argue that the final heart beat is the critical moment, with huge implications for end of life care.

(Photo credit: By kind permission of Herzog Hospital)

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