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Guilty Bystanders

Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It is a case of mind-boggling immorality. The official policy of the “Glenwood Gardens” retirement home in Bakersfield, California, is that staff, even trained medical staff, may not engage in the saving of human life. Yes, you read correctly.

This immoral, depraved, and decadent policy may have resulted in the death of an 87-year-old retiree, when a nurse at that facility refused to give a woman CPR. Lorraine Bayless collapsed on Tuesday last week in the dining room of the Glenwood Gardens facility and was barely breathing. The nurse called 911 for help. She explained to the dispatcher that it was against the facility’s policy for staff to give CPR. The heroic dispatcher pleaded, “It’s a human being!” according to the 911 tape released by the Bakersfield Fire Department and aired by dozens of media outlets.

911 dispatcher Tracey Halvorson continued her plea: “Is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”

“Um, not at this time,” was the horrific response of the facility’s nurse. Bayless, 87, was declared dead at Mercy Southwest Hospital later that night.

The executive director of Glenwood Gardens, Jeffrey Toomer, defended the nurse and his facility’s morally depraved policy. “In the event of a health emergency at this independent living community our practice is to immediately call emergency medical personnel for assistance and to wait with the individual needing attention until such personnel arrives,” Toomer wrote in a statement released to the media. “That is the protocol we followed.”

Glenwood Gardens is a subsidiary of Brookdale Senior Living, which operates long-term-care facilities in 36 states. Worse yet, the tape reveals that the nurse actually complained to someone else about the dispatcher’s moralization. “She’s yelling at me,” referring to dispatcher Halvorson, “and saying we have to have one of our residents perform CPR. I’m feeling stressed, and I’m not going to do that—make that call.” The dispatcher then asked the nurse if she was going to let the woman die. The nurse responded, “That’s why we called 911.”

All this brings up the question: Is there a halachic and moral obligation incumbent upon all humanity to save human life? The answer is that the Torah obligates non-Jews to follow a set of halachic guidelines, known as the Seven Laws of Noah. The Sefer HaChinuch points out that these are not just seven individual laws, but seven categories of laws. The Seven Laws are found in the Tosefta to Tractate Avodah Zarah (9:4) and are cited in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a). They are (1) the obligation to believe in G‑d; (2) the prohibition against murder; (3) the prohibition against theft; (4) the prohibition against adultery and similar forms of immorality; (5) the prohibition against cursing G‑d; (6) the prohibition of the cruelty to animals involved in eating flesh from a live animal; and (7) the obligation to establish a just court of law to enforce the laws.

As mentioned earlier, these seven laws are categories, and the obligation to save the life of another person is a subcategory of the law against murder. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72b) explains the moral obligation of defending the life of a victim from one who is pursuing him. There it states that the Torah obligates one to save the life of the victim—even if it may cause the death of the (potential) murderer pursuing that victim. This law and the associated verse—Bereishis 9:6, „שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמו יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקִים עָשָׂה אֶת־הָאָדָם“ —apply to non-Jews as well as Jews.

Since the obligation to save is even when it may cause the death of the pursuer, certainly, there is an obligation to save under other circumstances. Furthermore, Rabbi Dovid Parro in his monumental work Chasdei Dovid on the Tosefta writes (Korbanos 13:1) that each of the seven Noachide laws has an associated positive commandment, and the positive commandment of the law against murder is the obligation to save human life. The Chasdei Dovid writes, however, that one who neglects this obligation does not incur the death penalty.

How obligatory is the mitzvah of saving a life? The Netziv in his He’Emek Sheilah (Sh’lach 129:4) writes that a person is obligated to undergo any difficulty in the world to save the life of another. The Pischei Teshuvah (Y.D. 157:15) cites a debate between the Maharam Rikanti and the Radbaz as to whether one is obligated to sacrifice a limb to save another. The conclusion is like the view of the Radbaz that there is no obligation to do so.

What if the saving of the other’s life will incur an expense? Is there an obligation? Although the Yad Rama and Chavvos Yair seem to indicate that the obligation under such circumstances is similar to the view of the Radbaz, Rav Chaim Kanievsky in the work Mishnas Pikuach Nefesh (page 186) compiled by Rabbi Aryeh Lorenz (son of the late R’ Shlomo Lorenz) writes that there is an obligation of spending 20 percent of one’s financial holdings under such circumstances.

Applying all of this to the Glenwood Gardens nurse, let’s ask the following question: What if she could expect to be fired from her job if she chose to ignore the immoral policy of her employer? Would she still have had the obligation to save the life of the woman? Although technically one can answer that if losing her job would be greater than a loss of 20 percent of her assets she would be exempt, there are times when we must ignore the technical obligations and do what is right and proper. The Glenwood Gardens policy is horrifying and should be changed immediately. The moral fiber of this country is dependent upon the laws and policies that we implement—whether they be government policies or those of a corporation. At the same time, the actions of Tracey Halvorson, the 911 dispatcher, should be lauded and commended by anyone with the opportunity to do so. v

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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Posted by on March 6, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.