Q. The Australian media is again debating the euthanasia issue. I know that the circumstances surrounding the latest reported case are complicated but, in general, would Judaism allow a patient in pain to end their life?
A. Obviously Judaism fully recognises the problems of the dying patient and the agonies of the family. But it cannot condone deliberately shortening anyone’s life, even if it is a patient whose life no longer seems to have meaning.
Life is God’s precious boon. Only He has the prerogative of ending it. The body is His property. Only He is entitled to determine its destiny. No human being may shorten anyone’s life, even by a moment.
Tractate S’machot (1:1) rules, “A gosses (a dying person) is a living person in every respect… One may not close the eyes of a dying person. He who touches them or moves them is a shedder of blood, for Rabbi Meir used to say: This may be compared to a flickering flame. As soon as a person touches it, it becomes extinguished. So, too, whoever closes the eyes of a dying person is deemed to have taken his life.”
No distinction is made between one person and another when it comes to the right to life. Lord Jakobovits wrote: “It is morally irrelevant whether one shortens life by 70 years or only by a few hours, or whether the victim of a murder was young and robust or aged and physically or mentally debilitated.”
The proponents of euthanasia say there can come a time when life is not really life and a person is no longer really a person. In “The Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in Medicine: A Critique”, Helga Kuhse quotes Dr Michael Tooley’s contention that the ability to see oneself as existing over time is a necessary condition for the possession of a right to life or the wrongness of killing. Tooley suggests that “we reserve the term ‘person’ for those beings who are capable of understanding that they are continuing selves”. Kuhse advocates that competent patients should have the right to choose death; incompetent patients (where their express wishes are not known) should be dealt with in a way that considers the patient’s well-being and the prevention of pointless suffering; and infants and the severely retarded and brain-damaged are not “persons” and killing them is not directly wrong.
This sort of thinking has no place in Judaism, which insists that the right to life is absolute, not relative. To borrow a phrase from the Talmud, who has the moral right to determine that one person’s blood is redder than another’s? It is the most dangerous moral judgement of all to relativise people’s lives – the sick as against the healthy, the almost-dead as against the fully living, the old as against the young and, as the moral slide gains momentum, the poor as against the rich, the coloured as against the white races, the Jew as against the gentile…
From the Jewish point of view, then, active euthanasia is forbidden. How about passive euthanasia, withholding artificial impediments which may not be prolonging life but delaying death?
The 13th century Sefer Chassidim introduces the issue in terminology echoed in later works: “If a person is dying and someone near his house is chopping wood so that the soul cannot depart, then one should remove the wood-chopper from there.” In his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch the R’ma makes an even sharper distinction: “If there is something which inhibits the soul’s departure, such as a nearby noise of knocking like wood-chopping, or if there is salt on the patient’s tongue and these hinder the soul’s departure, then it is permitted to remove them from there because this does not entail a (positive) act but only the removal of an impediment to death.”
The militant campaigners try of course to bully everyone into thinking that euthanasia on demand is a natural human right – just as others try to dragoon us into believing in abortion on demand. We’re dealing with human life here, and that’s not a moment for militancy, for bullying or dragooning. The right attitude is humility, reticence, uncertainty and reserve. It’s better to stand back and think it over and over again. Once a life has been terminated, it’s rather difficult to restore it. There are mistakes we should never allow to happen.