UPDATED — Imagine, for a moment, something that no woman should ever have to imagine: you’ve just suffered a miscarriage. Shocked, shaken, and saddened beyond words, you go to the hospital to undergo a follow-up procedure. You’ve fasted all day in preparation and, after waiting two long and lonely hours, you’re finally being wheeled into the operating room. Then, just as you’re about to be anesthetized, a member of the hospital staff comes up to you. He’s very sorry, he says, but it looks like they won’t be able to perform the procedure after all. You’ll have to go home—yes, with the dead fetus still in your womb—and come back tomorrow.
“But—why?” you ask. And are told: because of Jewish law. Because the operating room your procedure was scheduled to take place in doesn’t have a special room abutting it—the kind of room that’s designed to prevent the soul of your dead fetus from filtering out into the hospital corridors and contaminating any Kohanim (Jewish males of the priestly tribe) who happen to be in the vicinity.
It’s hard to imagine, but there you have it: as Ami Kaufman pointed out, Israel’s Channel 2 reported today that this horrible scenario befell an Israeli woman in her 30’s who, after miscarrying in her second month of pregnancy, turned to the Assuta hospital in north Tel Aviv for help.
Though the hospital was eager to emphasize that “delaying the procedure didn’t endanger [the woman’s] health,” we shouldn’t be too credulous about such claims. Let’s leave aside the Channel 2 testimonies that quote one of the nurses as actually saying “it’s dangerous to stay that way with a dead fetus in the body.” Even if such a delay doesn’t harm the patient physically, it almost certainly harms her emotionally. And let’s not forget that physical and emotional health are intimately intertwined. Suffering a miscarriage and undergoing the subsequent procedure are, under any circumstances, extremely difficult emotional experiences that are apt to take a physical toll; add to that a last-minute decision to delay the procedure, and you could well aggravate the emotional trauma in a way that yields more serious physical effects.
It’s worth noting that the Assuta medical staff members were themselves shocked by today’s last-minute decision, which was apparently upheld by the hospital’s strict rabbi. According to the hospital statement, the whole incident would never have happened if not for a scheduling error; normally, such procedures are only scheduled to take place in rooms adjoining the special cubicles required by Jewish law, because, “out of a desire to honor the various populations that enter its gates, the hospital is committed to following the rules around priestly purity."
While I’m glad to know that today’s incident is hardly a regular occurrence in Israeli hospitals, I somehow suspect that’ll be cold comfort to the woman who was just turned away from Assuta, and who is currently walking around Tel Aviv with a dead fetus in her womb.
UPDATE This post originally discussed the separation of synagogue and state in Israel. We've since learned that Assuta is a private hospital and have removed the materal dealing with the issue. We regret the error.