Gavel (illustration)
Gavel (illustration) iStock

Is Shalom Nethanel Ouanounou dead or alive?

A Canadian court is set to rule on the fate of a 25-year-old Orthodox Jewish man from Toronto who sustained brain damage following a severe asthmatic attack.

On September 30th, Ouanounou was declared dead by local authorities, after doctors at Ontario’s Humber River Hospital ruled he had suffered irreparable brain damage.

Three days earlier, Ouanounou had suffered a severe asthma attack, leaving his brain deprived of oxygen.

While hospital officials moved to end Ouanounou’s life support, Ouanounou’s father, Maxime, appealed to Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in November, and was granted a temporary injunction barring Humber River Hospital from terminating the young man’s life support before a final ruling is issued in the matter.

The case pits the prevailing medical definition of death against traditional Jewish views on the definition of the end of life, and raises questions regarding the extent of religious rights in Canada.

"[Shalom] made clear that his beliefs in this regard are that ‘brain death’ is not the same as death," said Ouanounou’s father, citing his "strict adherence to his religious beliefs," CBC News reported.

The family has requested that their son’s death certificate be nullified and that life support be maintained.

Last week, Judge Glenn Hainey heard arguments on the merits, and is expected to rule on the matter within the next few weeks.

Complicating the case is Canada’s lack of a clear definition for what constitutes death.

Humber River Hospital and a group of three doctors who supported the hospital’s decision wrote that nullifying Ouanounou’s death certificate and rejecting the hospital’s determination of death “would create massive uncertainty medically, legally, and socially.”

Hospital officials added that Ouanounou’s heartbeat – a key element in the religious claim that Ouanounou is still alive – was artificially maintained.

"The only reason that the applicant's heart is still beating is because of the intensity of the interventions being provided to him.”

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