Jewish man at the centre of religious death debate to be remembered at funeral

Doctors said he was dead. His family argued he was alive. Now, the man at the centre of a legal battle about the definition of death will be remembered at a funeral.

Family fought for son's right to remain hooked up to life support machines indefinitely

Shalom Ouanounou spent more than five months on life support after he suffered an asthma attack that did irreversible damage to his brain. (CBC)

The young man at the centre of a court debate over the legal definition of death in Ontario will be remembered at a funeral on Friday.

Shalom Ouanounou, 25, spent more than five months lying in a hospital bed, incapable of consciousness, moving or breathing on his own.

To his doctors, he was dead, and had been since late September, when he suffered a severe asthma attack that led to his brain death.

But to his devoutly religious family, who believe in a piece of Jewish law that says that only when a heart stops beating is someone dead, he was very much alive thanks to the life support machines that kept his cardiac and respiratory systems functioning. 

Late Thursday night, Ouanounou lawyer Hugh Scher confirmed that Shalom had "passed away" that afternoon and would be honoured at a funeral in Thornhill, Ont,. on Friday. 

"Shalom's heart stopped, and he stopped breathing… which is the definition of death under Jewish law and under Canadian law in most instances," said Scher. 

Case will go on

Ouanounou, who studied at a Yeshiva in Israel and who worked in Toronto as an installer of doors and windows, attended Seneca College with the goal of working in property management, according to an affidavit written by his father.

Last month, legal arguments were submitted to an Ontario judge from the Ouanounou family, the hospital and the man's doctors making the case for whether he should be allowed to stay hooked up to the machines indefinitely. 
Shalom Ouanounou, 25, was described by his father as sensitive and conscientious. (Submitted by Hugh Scher)

Scher told CBC Toronto that a judgment in Ouanounou's case will still be delivered by Justice Glenn Hainey in order to "determine the issue," and that an appeal is likely to proceed either way.

"It's not uncommon at all that the court would ultimately render a decision, because the decision impacts not only the parties directly affected by the litigation but also impacts the broader community and addresses a fundamental questions and principle of law," he said. 

Charter right argument

In last month's submissions, the hospital and doctors argued that though Ontario has no fixed legal definition of death, neurological death is the accepted definition of death in the medical community.

Taquisha McKitty has been declared brain dead but her family are fighting to keep her on life support. (Instagram)

Scher and his co-counsel, on the other hand, argued that since Shalom was deeply religious prior to his brain death, it would violate his charter right to religious freedom to be taken off life support. 

They wanted his death certificate revoked and all possible medical interventions performed to prolong his cardiac and respiratory functionality.

The Ouanounou case has several common threads with that of Brampton woman Taquisha McKitty, who was declared brain dead in Sept. 2017.

Also represented by Scher, McKitty's family argue that declaring her dead while her heart continues to beat contravenes her Christian beliefs and amounts to discrimination.

The McKitty case is also awaiting a decision from an Ontario Superior Court judge.

Scher said that although each case is "unique unto itself," it's possible that the decision taken in one will affect the other.

"Ultimately, I suspect there will be appeals in both of them, and the appeals will likely become joined at the Court of Appeal and potentially ultimately up to the Supreme Court of Canada," he said.