Separating Conjoined Twins Raises Unusual and Tricky Dilemma for Jewish Law

Dr. Gerard Weinberg, a pediatric surgeon and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Mar 20, 2008 — Separating conjoined twins presents frighteningly complex moral challenges. Advances in surgical procedures have given doctors newfound ability to separate conjoined twins and improve their chances for survival. However, often one child will live only at the expense of his twin. Who is in a position to make that decision, and how is one to asses which life takes precedence?

Yeshiva University’s Student Medical Ethics Society (MES) and the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) hosted “Separating Conjoined Twins in Jewish Law” on March 18 for over 100 students to learn and discuss these issues.

“The decision to surgically separate conjoined twins calls into question critical moral and ethical concerns, touching upon the very core foundations of life and death,” said David Harari, a senior at Yeshiva College who organized the event. “Although this is a rare phenomenon, we as Jews and as ethical human beings must be equipped with the know-how to deal with such complex dilemmas.”

Dr. Gerard Weinberg, a pediatric surgeon and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, presented the medical options and possible consequences of separating conjoined twins. David Wasserman, director of research at the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University, discussed the legal aspects involved in such a procedure. “The question, which is very difficult to answer, is ‘which interpretation is the right one?’” asked Wasserman. “Answers may come from religious and non-religious ethicists, but ultimately these will remain hard cases.”

Rabbi Daniel Feldman, director of rabbinic research at the CJF and an instructor in the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program at RIETS, outlined various perspectives in Halakhah [Jewish law] using various models—the concept of abortion and treatment of terminally ill individuals—that could be applied to the case of conjoined twins.

“It’s fascinating to be given a glimpse of the Halakhic process at work in this area,” said Chana Wiznetzer, a sophomore in Stern College who sits on the MES board. “I gained a more concrete understanding of how our rabbinic leaders come to their conclusions, especially in such challenging situations.”

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