Euthanasia: A Jewish View

According to traditional Jewish law, a goses–a terminally ill patient, defined as someone expected to die within 72 hours–is considered a human being in all respects. One who kills such a person, even if that person is in extreme pain and very near death, is still considered a murderer. Therefore, traditional rabbinic authorities forbid active euthanasia–benevolently instigating the death of a terminally ill patient. 

Because Jewish law prohibits suicide (except, perhaps, in certain cases of religious martyrdom), traditional authorities also forbid assisted suicide–enabling a terminally ill patient to take her own life. However, authorities disagree about what prohibition the one who provides assistance violates. The possibilities range from murder to lifnei iver–taking advantage of an individual’s weakness or propensity for sin by making possible or encouraging a sinful act.

euthanasiaPassive euthanasia–withholding or withdrawing therapy that can keep someone alive–is a more complicated issue. The Talmud forbids all acts that might hasten death, and this ruling was upheld by the medieval Jewish law codes. However, in a famous passage, the 13th-century Rabbi Judah the Pious ruled that one should remove obstacles which prevent death. Rabbi Moshe Isserles codified this ruling in his commentary on the authoritative 16th-century law code the Shulhan Arukh, writing that, “if there is anything which causes a hindrance to the departure of the soul…it is permissible to remove [it] from there because there is no act involved, only the removal of the impediment.”

Thus, traditionally, the basic principle governing end-of-life issues is that nothing can be done to hasten death, but all hindrances to death can, and perhaps should, be removed.

However, the practicalities and logistics of this are complicated by modern medical technologies that enable doctors to prolong life with medications and machines which facilitate respiration and nutrition. Is withholding medication from a terminally ill patient hastening death or removing a hindrance? What about withdrawing artificial hydration and nutrition?

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