Some Modern Views on Euthanasia
Contemporary Jewish thinkers have expressed a wide range of opinions about the permissibility and parameters of euthanasia.
The Traditional View Summarized
[A]ny form of active euthanasia is strictly prohibited and condemned as plain murder…anyone who kills a dying person is liable to the death penalty as a common murderer. At the same time, Jewish law sanctions the withdrawal of any factor--whether extraneous to the patient himself or not--which may artificially delay his demise in the final phase.
-- British Orthodox rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. Reprinted from "The Dying and Their Treatment in Jewish Law: Preparation for Death and Euthanasia," Hebrew Medical Journal 2.
Affirming a Traditionalist Perspective
The practice of euthanasia--whether active or passive--is contrary to the teachings of Judaism. Any positive act designed to hasten the death of the patient is equated with murder in Jewish law, even if the death is hastened only by a matter of moments. No matter how laudable the intentions of the person performing an act of mercy-killing may be, his deed constitutes and act of homicide…
In discharging his responsibility with regard to prolongation of life, the physician must make use of any medical resources which are available. However, he is not obligated to employ procedures which are themselves hazardous in nature and may potentially foreshorten the life of the patient. Nor is either the physician or the patient obligated to employ a therapy which is experimental in nature…
The attempt to sustain life, by whatever means, is naught but the expression of the highest regard for the precious nature of the gift of life and of the dignity in which it is held…
Only the Creator, who bestows the gift of life, may relieve man of that life, even when it has become a burden rather than a blessing.
-- Orthodox rabbi J. David Bleich. Reprinted from Judaism and Healing, published by Ktav.
Modern Medical Technologies Complicate the Issue
It would appear that where the indirect termination of the life of a critically ill patient would result in the saving of a viable life, as in the case of organ transplants or the allocation of scant medical resources, Jewish law would, in principle, legitimate such an act, provided that an institutional framework existed for assessing the effect of such a deed upon the moral fabric of society and for administering discretionary punishments.
In all cases involving the killing, either directly or indirectly, of a tereifah [an incurably ill patient], the killer would be exempt from the death penalty and his fate would be decided by extrajudicial bodies. These bodies would have at their disposal a whole range of sanctions, including death. Presumably, where proof was brought to the effect that the death of the tereifah had been brought about in an indirect fashion for the sake of saving viable life, those involved in the relevant acts would not be subject to any sanction.
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