"The legal issue is this: The parents of the brain dead boy are deeply religious people and in their religious belief a person is dead when their heart and lungs stop,"
Doctors at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington want to end treatment for Motl Brody, 12, whom they declared deceased Wednesday after brain cancer left him with no brain activity, the hospital's lawyer Kenneth Rosenau told AFP.
But Brody's conservative Jewish parents, saying their religion does not define death in that way, are fighting to keep Motl on life-sustaining equipment in the hospital's intensive care unit, their lawyer Jeffrey Zuckerman said.
"And if a person is not dead, there is a religious obligation to give that person medical treatment. Their son is alive as long as his heart is beating, his lungs are breathing," Zuckerman said.
The Brodys, from Brooklyn, New York, live by the Jewish Halakha principles, which define death as "irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions," according to the family's court filings in the case.
In the United States, the individual states set their own definitions of what constitutes "dead." In Washington, the cessation of brain functions is the basis of a death ruling, while in New York, the criteria is whether the heart continues to function.
The hospital, however, sought the court's support to order the boy's life-support equipment be cut off and to stop giving him treatment that stimulates his heart.
The case will be heard starting Monday in a local court in the US capital.
Zuckerman called the hospital's move to seek court support to authorize removing the boy's life support equipment "unprecedented."
"We have not found any other case in any other hospital in the US," he said.
"The first thing for doctors is, do no harm. And here they are proposing literally to pull the plug and discontinue medicine for this boy."
Motl, the third of seven children for the Brodys, fell ill six months ago and underwent an operation for a cancerous tumor in his brain. But afterwards his condition worsened.
One of his uncles told the Washington Post that the little boy was very religious and wanted to become a rabbi. He wrote poems in Hebrew and was impatiently waiting for his Bar Mitzvah.
The court case raises issues of religious freedom in the United States, though. Zuckerman points out that federal law says the government cannot impinge on the Brody's adherence to their religious principles when they seek to keep their son alive through continuing medical treatment.
Seeking to resolve the conflict, the hospital last week proposed that the boy be transferred to New York, where he would still be considered legally alive because his heart is functioning, according to Zuckerman.
But, he said, the hospital itself warned that the boy might not survive aboard an ambulance "before he gets off the beltway" which circles Washington -- that is, less than a half-hour away from the hospital.
Defining death is a matter of debate for the Roman Catholic religion as well.
On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI called on the scientific community to reach a consensus for determining when someone's life ends which accounts for technological advances.
His remarks came after a Vatican newspaper published an article questioning whether brain death means the end of life.