Medical ethics tackled from perspective of Jewish law

Euthanasia, screening for genetic abnormalities, drug use — whether these topics come up in a classroom, a hospital room or a dinner party, they are almost certain to evoke lively debate and passionate emotions.

From Feb. 16-19, at the seventh annual International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in Burlingame, these are among the subjects that will be explored from a perspective not usually discussed in the national media — halachah, or Jewish law. The President's Weekend event takes place at the Park Plaza Hotel (formerly the Radisson), near San Francisco International Airport.

There, doctors, as well as some rabbis, lawyers and scholars will consider such issues as alternative medicine in the Jewish tradition, keeping medicine compassionate in the increasingly impersonal world of managed care, and the boundary between individual and community responsibility when it comes to drug abuse.

With 400 to 500 participants expected to attend this year's conference, the event is expected to be the largest to date.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of the Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco, says the annual event has two goals. "One is to deal with medical ethical issues, including issues of life and death," he says. "Two is to bring back Jewish physicians to Jewish roots, Jewish culture."

The Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics is co-sponsoring the conference with Stanford University's School of Medicine, Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, the Institute for Behavioral Health Care in Portola Valley, the World Zionist Organization and several other groups. More than 20 hours of course credit will be offered for physicians, nurses and behavioral-care professionals through the University of California San Francisco.

Lecturers at the event will include attorney Peter Edelman, counsel to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who will speak about substance abuse.

Attorney Yaacov Neeman, a law partner of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog, will discuss a case related to euthanasia that was considered by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Lucy Shapiro, chair of Stanford Medical School Department of Developmental Biology, will address the ethical dilemmas posed by genetic mutations. And Dr. Norman E. Shumway, professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford, will speak on the future of organ transplantation.

Past conference participants returning for this year's event include Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of biology at Yeshiva University in New York City; Lord Immanuel Jakobvits, retired chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth; and Avraham Steinberg, director of the Center of Medical Ethics at Hebrew University.

Other Israelis traveling to the Bay Area for this year's conference include Knesset member Benjamin Begin and Dan Michaeli, chairman of Kuppat Cholim, Israel's nationalized health care system.

In an appearance sponsored by National Maimonides Society of the United Jewish Appeal, Michaeli will speak on "A Light Unto the Nations: The Response of the Jewish State to the Challenge of Providing Health Care for All."

Though most of the sessions arise from a traditional Jewish perspective, the conference is open to all Jews. Sixty percent of those attending the conference are non-observant Jews, according to Lipner.

"We are not pushing halachah on anybody," he says. "We are representing what we believe is the correct position — the position of the Torah. Everybody can take what they want and leave what they want. It's an open forum."