Q. Do I have the right to refuse medical treatment?
A. In Jewish law, the answer is generally no. Justice Cardozo said, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body”. It sounds like what one of my children said when refusing to do what we wanted, “I’m the boss of me!” Jewish law does not automatically agree that even a “human being of adult years and sound mind” is the boss of him/herself. The boss is God, and the doctor is His agent.
Rabbi Jacob Emden said, “Once the doctor recognises a definite need to administer a tested treatment, a patient, even if he objects, must submit under all circumstances. The matter does not depend on the consent of the patient, since he is not free to destroy himself” (Mor Uk’tzi’a to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 328). The doctor has no right to put a patient’s life at risk and the patient has no right to sacrifice him/herself.
Patient autonomy is a very important principle but it is not the last word.