When a Dead Ewe Gave Birth to a Live Lamb
‘We Do Not Wait For Her To Give Birth’
One day a truck delivered a pregnant ewe at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim, and a large team of doctors and nurses accompanied it to an operating room. They were part of a research program on determining the moment of death…
This halachic issue is difficult and complicated and we cannot attempt to resolve it in this article. However, we will focus on one facet of the subject that originates in our sugya. The basic question of determining the moment of death is: Which signs indicate whether a patient is alive or dead?
Life After Brain Death
One may wish to prove from our Gemara that a person is not defined as dead after complete brain death. Our Gemara explains that a fetus has no independent life and derives food and life from its mother. Thus, it is impossible for the mother to die with the fetus continuing to live – “the fetus dies first.” When a pregnant woman stops living, her fetus dies immediately with her.
But in our era, there have been recorded cases of women lapsing into a state of brain death – with no apparent signs of life aside from breathing machines keeping the body’s systems going – but nevertheless giving birth to healthy infants. These brain dead women, therefore, must be considered alive if we accept the Gemara’s rule that dead women cannot give birth to live infants.
The Deceased’s Body Functions Via Machines
However, some reject this proof. They argue that although a fetus cannot live after its mother’s death, it can survive via machines that its mother is connected to. They contend that the fetus is like an infant in an incubator. Therefore, one cannot prove that a brain dead mother is considered alive from this Gemara.
This whole question was brought before Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l (Responsa Minchas Shlomo, 2nd edition, 2:86), who approved the following experiment to prove or disprove the suggested proof regarding the moment of death from our sugya:
A pregnant ewe was brought to the hospital and attached to breathing machines. Hospital staff then killed it before delivering its baby. Due to the lack of experience in delivering a lamb in this condition, 15 experts gathered from the fields of neurology, cardiology, gynecology, physiology, veterinary medicine, anesthesiology etc. Everyone voluntarily devoted long hours to explore this halachic topic.
Once it was determined that the ewe was dead, the doctors waited 25 minutes and then took out the fetus – live and healthy! It was thus proven beyond all doubt that breathing machines can supply the body with its needs to enable it to continue to function, though the host body may no longer be alive.
As noted, this experiment was performed to clarify if a dead ewe can pass life to its fetus by means of machines attached to it. Once it was proven that it was possible, the proof that there is life after brain death was refuted since all those children born after their mothers’ death get their life from medical instruments (not from the mother). The question thus still remains open whether brain dead people are alive or dead. Indeed, Rabbi Auerbach emphasizes: “I shall stand by my watch, as I wrote before, that one may not rely on medical science as long as there is a heartbeat though it is almost certain that it is due only to the machine.”
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