Opposing death with dignity on Jewish grounds is misguided
This publication recently reported that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), representing several Orthodox rabbis, spoke out in opposition to Death with Dignity bills being considered by state legislatures across the United States. As the author of Pennsylvania’s Death with Dignity bill, I feel compelled to respond. I do so because I feel that the RCA’s stated position is misinformed, intrusive and not in keeping with the Jewish values I was raised on.
My Death with Dignity bill would allow people who meet certain requirements to obtain medication that they themselves could take to end their life. To qualify, the patient must be terminally ill, have no realistic hope of recovery and have less than six months to live, all of which must be certified by the patient’s physician and a second, independent physician. Further, my bill requires that in most cases the patient must administer the medicine himself, meaning nobody else participates in actually ending the patient’s life.
Sometimes bills such as mine are referred to as “assisted suicide” bills. This is a misnomer. The patients in these cases have no interest in committing suicide. They desperately want to live, but they aren’t going to. They are going to die. My bill gives them, and them alone, some choices regarding how they die. Is there a limit to how much suffering they can endure? Do they wish to die at an appointed time, surrounded by friends and family, or in the middle of the night, alone, hooked up to tubes in a hospital?
In the states where this is already legal, we have seen no evidence that third parties attempt to exert undue pressure on patients to speed up the dying process. Additionally, most of the people who get the medication don’t take it right away. Again, they want to live. Just having the medicine seems to provide the comfort and sense of control that some patients need to carry on. Some patients never actually take the medicine and, instead, die naturally. Most of those who take the medication only do so in the last few days, when their suffering becomes truly unbearable.
The RCA equates this calm and dignified choice to the “act of murder.” This, frankly, is unhinged. Further, I find myself wondering why a group of rabbis has a position on my bill at all. Their core objection appears to be religious, but we don’t make laws to reflect the teachings of any one religion. The laws we pass will affect everyone, even people who don’t share the RCA’s religious views. It’s one thing for a rabbi to give a sermon urging his congregation (based on his or her interpretation of the Torah) not to take advantage of this law, but it is another thing for that same rabbi to try to force his religious beliefs on people who have not chosen to join his shul. Frankly, what those people do is none of a rabbi’s business.
Even on its own religious terms, the RCA’s position is, at best, subject to debate. Certainly, as a general principle, Jewish law objects to suicide. But, as mentioned previously, this isn’t suicide at all; it’s merely controlling the circumstances of an impending and inevitable death. It is certainly not the typical suicide caused by the breakup of a relationship, a severe financial setback or even clinical depression. Thus, lumping Death with Dignity in with these other forms of actual suicide is a poor fit.
Neither the Reform nor Conservative branches of Judaism have opposed Death with Dignity. I believe that is due to their more appropriate focus on Jewish law’s tradition of compassion. The Torah is replete with references both to God’s compassion and mercy, and our obligation to show the same. And there is nothing compassionate or merciful about forcing someone to endure unbearable, endless pain with only the promise of even worse suffering to come, followed by the possibility of a lonely and undignified death. To me, it is regrettable that the RCA focuses so much on rules and gives so little deference to easing the suffering of others.
In addition to the findings I’ve mentioned previously regarding states where Death with Dignity is legal, there is something else. Even vocal opponents of legalized end-of-life choice often take advantage of their state’s law when they find themselves or a loved one in an end-of-life situation. To be honest, I don’t begrudge them. None of us truly know how we would react if faced with such a unique and difficult situation. This is another reason why it is important for the RCA and other organizations to resist the urge to impose their views on suffering people they do not know and have never met.
Daylin Leach represents the 17th senatorial district in the Pennsylvania state Senate, where he is the minority chair of the Judiciary Committee.