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Right to Die

10/07/2015 11:11:27 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman


As I write this blog, many in California are celebrating the Governor’s signing of the “Right-to-Die” bill otherwise known as AB 15. This new law allows physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to end their life rather than suffer through the course of the disease. Those celebrating its passage see AB 15 as a long-awaited, compassionate response to terminal illness; “why suffer when you can end your life in dignity?”

I’ve seen firsthand the indignities and suffering of terminal illness. I watched my brother, Willie, die of liver cancer – it ultimately spread to his lungs and slowly robbed him of his breath and ultimately his life – and I’ve witnessed many (too many) deaths in the congregation over the years. Suffice to say that my experience these last 20 years has sensitized me to the array of complex and often emotional issues surrounding assisted suicide. Do we have a right to die? Is dignity a higher value than life itself? What if the doctors are wrong and the condition is not terminal, at least not within the often-cited six-month window? What happens to the patient-doctor relationship when your physician can also be your assassin? What safeguards are in place for the most vulnerable – disabled, poor, elderly, depressed, etc.…?

What about the slippery slope?  What kind of Pandora’s Box are we opening? Judaism only allows for suicide under extreme conditions not included or envisioned in any modern legislation. How can we condone a practice forbidden by almost every reading of Jewish law and medical ethics? The highest value in Jewish law and tradition is the preservation of life, but what do we do when to live is to suffer?

While the overwhelming majority of Jewish thinkers, across the spectrum of Jewish movements, are against active euthanasia or assisted suicide, a similar majority supports both palliative care and hospice as approaches to terminal illness. In other words, Judaism holds that, just as we are commanded to heal when we can, we are also commanded to treat pain and suffering, even if a byproduct of the treatment hastens death. Moving from what some call “passive euthanasia” to “active euthanasia”, deliberately doing something that causes the patient to die, is the “red line” in Jewish tradition that few believe it is okay to cross, the general notion being that only God, not a person, “gives” and “takes” life.

As liberal/non-Orthodox Jews, we believe that Jewish tradition has a vote but not a veto in our lives. Ultimately we decide to what degree we will follow Jewish tradition and ethics. In other words, we embrace moral autonomy as a basic precept for better and for worse! That means that whether we embrace the “right-to-die” is a very weighty and personal choice and in that sense I both respect and agree with what Governor Brown said about his signing of AB 15 into law:

“In the end I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I would not deny that right to others.”

Governor Brown is right: Judaism may not support the right to die, but this isn’t the first time that tradition has lagged morality. While this new law is a step toward compassion and dignity, we take it tentatively, mindful of the pitfalls along this new and uncharted path, where our Jewish compass, at least as it is currently calibrated, is of limited use.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780