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.

— Professor of Law Daniel B. Sinclair. Reprinted from
Tradition and the Biological Revolution
, published by Edinburgh University Press

I sympathize enormously with patients going through an agonizing process of dying, and in cases of irreversible, terminal illness, I have taken a very liberal stance on withholding or withdrawing life-support systems, including artificial nutrition and hydration, to enable nature to take its course. I would also permit the use of any amount of medication necessary to relieve pain, even if that is the same amount that will hasten a person’s death, as long as the intention is to alleviate pain.

The [Conservative movement’s] Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated that stance, as well as that of Rabbi Avram Reisner, who permits withdrawing machines and medications from the patient but not withholding or withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration, and who permits using large doses of morphine to relieve pain up to, but not including, the amount that poses a risk to the patient’s life.

— Conservative rabbi Elliot N. Dorff. Reprinted from “Teshuvah on Assisted Suicide,” Conservative Judaism (Summer 1998).

Alternative Approaches

Judaism values the pursuit of health and the preservation of life as very important mitzvot…However it is also clear in Judaism that biological life, while an important value, is not a supreme value which overrides all other considerations. Therefore, in extreme situations, the termination of human life is not considered a sin, but is in fact praiseworthy.  The determining factor is whether the termination of life is consistent with the preservation of the person as a being created b’tzelem elohim.

In other words, does the continuation of biological life violate the sacred character of the individual’s life? Therefore, the aggadah, the sacred narrative of a person’s life, becomes part of the halakhic [Jewish legal] decision‑making process. Ideally the person, family, physician, and rabbi will be involved in the initial decision. The decision would be reviewed by impartial medical and rabbinic experts. The decision-making seems cumbersome, but is necessary to avoid conflict of interest and rash decisions. This might be a permissible limitation on autonomy.

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