Jewish medical ethics conference marks its 10th year

Looking unflinchingly at today's hot topics in medical ethics has been a prescription for longevity for the International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics, which marks its 10th anniversary next month.

This year is no exception. The conference, which discusses medical ethics through the lens of halachah, will tackle topics including Jack Kevorkian's case of physician-assisted suicide and using human subjects for testing drugs.

The conference runs Feb. 12 to 15 at the Park Plaza Hotel in Burlingame.

"We feel good that, after 10 years, San Francisco has become the world center for Jewish medical ethics," said Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of the Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco, which sponsors the event. It is jointly sponsored by Stanford University's School of Medicine Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

"Physicians come from Argentina, Australia, Israel, Denmark and Canada. All over the world, people have a tremendous thirst to study what Torah has to say on medicine."

In the 10-year span, Lipner said he's seen a national proliferation of miniconferences on Jewish medical ethics, many of which were initiated by previous attendees of the local gathering.

Additionally, Lipner considers the recent wave of medical ethics discussions sweeping through the public as further confirmation that his conference has been "a pioneer in the field."

Dr. Barry Oberstein, an internist with a private practice in San Mateo, has attended the conference all 10 years. He says it has helped him learn "to look at things in a much different light, especially treating life with a lot more dignity according to what the Torah teaches. It has made me more sensitive to patients' needs and really renews my enthusiasm for medicine."

Oberstein even encourages his patients, as well as peers, to attend.

"Unfortunately we don't get as much participation locally as we should. I think if more physicians attended, it would help their depression" over the current state of the medical profession, he said.

More than 400 are expected for this year's gathering, according to Barry Smail, executive director of the institute.

Lipner said participants come expecting to dive into current issues "in an open way and find out the Torah point of view on the subject."

Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, retired chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is a featured speaker at this year's conference and will be honored as "The Father of Modern Jewish Medical Ethics."

Ya'acov Ne'eman, former Israel Minister of Finance, will be attending, as will Roald Hoffman, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry from Cornell University.

On Saturday, Feb. 13, the conference will highlight issues such as abortion, depression and managed health care and their intersection with Jewish law.

And on Sunday, Feb. 14, the conference will begin with lectures by rabbis and doctors focusing on treatment of dying patients, to be followed with workshops touching on Kevorkian and women in medicine.

Offering a preview of the workshops, Lipner said Kevorkian's methods are "opposed to the Torah point of view." Lipner also lauded statistics showing a rise in the number of women doctors, saying he's "happy more women, particularly observant women, are going into medicine. The Torah approach approves of this as long as care for family comes first."

Sunday evening will feature issues concerning experimenting on human subjects. Michael Friedman, acting commissioner for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will present a talk titled "Testing the Untestible: FDA Regulation of Human Experimentation on Vulnerable Populations."

The conference will conclude Monday evening, Feb. 15, with a dialogue between Jakobovits and Hoffman on the struggle between science and religion.

Lipner has found that the intermeshing of diverse subjects with physicians from different cultures — all under the umbrella of Jewish law — leaves a lasting mark on participants.

"I think the biggest compliment came from a Muslim physician, from Oman, who works at Oxford. He said he's been all over the world and has never seen 400 physicians studying medical ethics for four days. That just shows our work is paying off."