Human life and health are major priorities for Judaism. Since life is given by God, its preservation is a religious and moral duty. What I do with my body and my life is not just my problem, but God’s.
This is why we cannot unquestioningly accept the view of Justice Cardozo that “every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body.”
It sounds fine, but it fails to recognise that our bodies are not our own. I may place my material possessions at risk, but not my body or my life. Hence the cry for euthanasia – “assisted suicide” – can have no echo in Judaism.
Obviously Judaism fully recognises the problems of the dying patient and the agonies of the family. But it has always set its face against compromising anyone’s right to live, even that of the patient whose condition arouses in himself or others the feeling that there are times when life no longer has meaning.
Life is a precious boon given by God. Only He has the prerogative of ending it. The body is His property; only He may determine its destiny. One may not commit murder, nor shorten anyone’s life, even by a moment.
The rule is, “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.”
An argument put forward by the proponents of euthanasia is that there can come a time when one’s life is not really life and a person is no longer really a person. Helga Kuhse, in “The Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in Medicine: A Critique”, quotes Dr Michael Tooley, who suggests that “we reserve the term ‘person’ for those beings who are capable of understanding that they are continuing selves”.
Kuhse’s conclusion is that neither human fetuses nor human infants, nor humans with severe mental retardation or brain damage are “persons”, and it would not be directly wrongful to take their lives. She advocates that competent patients should have the right to choose death and incompetent patients (where their express wishes are not known) should be dealt with in a way that considers the patient’s wellbeing and the prevention of pointless suffering.
This sort of thinking has no place in Judaism, which insists that the right to life is absolute, not relative. To borrow a phrase used by the Talmud, who has the right to determine that one person’s blood is redder than another’s?
It is the most dangerous moral judgement of all to make distinctions between the relative value of 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, the Jew as against the gentile…
From the Jewish point of view, then, active euthanasia is totally forbidden. Is there, however, any room for passive euthanasia, withholding treatment which may be artificially delaying a person’s demise?
Moshe Isserles says in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch: “If there is something which inhibits the soul’s departure, such as 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 question is, are we shortening a patient’s life, which is forbidden, or shortening their dying, which can be permitted.