The “Right to Die” on Election Day

Amid all the excitement and dismay of the Trump upset on Election Day 2016, it was easy to miss a lopsided victory in Colorado for Proposition 106, legalizing “Medical Aid in Dying” or assisted suicide. And I suppose the story wasn’t all that newsworthy, since Colorado joined five other states (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California) that already have similar laws. Besides, the Colorado law seems rather tame, at least as described in the Nov. 8 Denver Post: “Colorado passed a medical aid in dying measure Tuesday that will allow adults suffering from terminal illness to take life-ending, doctor-prescribed sleeping medication.”

 But newsworthy or not, Proposition 106 highlights one of the great underlying questions of our age: What gives value and meaning to human life?

If we can’t give a definitive answer to this question, then we’ll have to deal with other questions: Who sets the limits on “Medical Aid in Dying”? On what basis would such limits be set? Should there be any limits at all?

The Netherlands and Belgium are a few years ahead of the US in legalized assisted suicide. In 2001 and 2002, they legalized euthanasia (which differs from assisted suicide in that someone other than the victim does the killing). According to an April, 2016, article by Douglas Murray, euthanasia in these countries has expanded far beyond terminal cases to include those suffering from mental illness.

In 2013, a single Dutch clinic helped kill nine psychiatric patients who were all able-bodied. Not the least curious of the problems this raises is that the patient must prove he is of sound mind while wanting to die. That is, he must show that he wants to die but is not suicidal. If the person is deemed suicidal, he might not be able to get euthanasia but could instead be put in an asylum.

The article opens with the story of Nathan (born Nancy) Verhelst. “In September 2013, when Nathan was 44 years old, the Belgian state killed him by lethal injection because of his ‘unbearable psychological suffering.’”

Even more recently, just two months ago, the first minor received euthanasia in Belgium. In another article, Wesley J. Smith, comments: “Think about this: Children who can’t enter into legal contracts, get tattooed, or be licensed to drive a car may request—and receive—death.”

Euthanasia has become a cause célèbre today, right up there with gay and transgender rights. I see a common thread uniting these issues, which goes back to the big question: What gives value and meaning to human life? Classical Judaism and Christianity agree on a response to this question. Humans are created in the image of God, and this is the foundation of all morality, or the great principle of Torah.

In the second century, Rabbi Akiva, son of Joseph, was asked about the [fundamental principle of Torah]. He said it was the commandment in Leviticus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” . . .  His friend Rabbi Simeon, son of Azzai, disagreed, He said that the greatest verse is from Genesis: “This is the book of the generations of man. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him.” [1]

Human life, every individual human life, therefore, has inherent, undeniable, and indeed sacred value (Sanhedrin 37a). This value underlies the entire structure of our morality, and the laws and institutions that rest upon it. It’s reflected, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson didn’t pen these words as a Christian, or even a believer in the Bible. He was a freethinker, who years later produced his own version of the Gospels that excluded all references to the miraculous and the resurrection. But his thinking was shaped by the broad biblical revelation of a Creator, who “self-evidently” gave value and dignity to human beings. Jefferson favored a separation of church and state, but his Declaration of Independence reveals the state’s dependence on foundational religious ideas.

It’s ironic that in today’s democracies, including the USA, a document claiming what the Declaration claims, or resting its argument on creation and the Creator, as it does, would be driven out of public discourse.

Without the foundational idea of humankind created in the image of God, however, how exactly do you decide on the value of a human life? If it’s merely biological and material, then when to end it really is a matter of individual choice. But if human life is merely biological, how do you make that decision? Can a free society sustain itself detached from the broad religious values that it was originally established on? The trajectory set by euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands suggests the answer.

Wesley Smith concludes his story:

Here’s the bottom line. Euthanasia consciousness isn’t really about “choice.” Nor is it about terminal illness. Rather, euthanasia proponents see killing and suicide as acceptable answers to human suffering and acceptable means of reducing costs of care.

I don’t entirely agree. I believe that “choice” really is part of the bottom line of “euthanasia consciousness.” If there is no Creator (or the Creator is irrelevant), I have unlimited choice to run my own life by my own tastes and values. I’m free to customize and accessorize my own life, as I would be with any commodity. Even the created categories of male and female collapse before individual choice—and collapses like this should be celebrated. That’s why many who see themselves as cutting-edge celebrate all expressions of gender choice and engineering, and increasingly celebrate a “right to die” as well.

Human freedom without meta-human values, however, has proven itself hazardous to human life.

[1] Sifra Kedoshim 2:16:11, cited in William B. Silverman, The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1989) 219-220.

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5 thoughts on “The “Right to Die” on Election Day”

  1. I hear you, Rabbi Resnik. At the same time, what do you do with people who are of right frame of mind but suffering terrible in a terminal illness?

    I work in the tech world, and one of our bright young leaders, Pieter Hintjens, was diagnosed this spring with a terminal illness. His conditioned worsened over the last few months. He wrote an epic blog post, Protocol for Dying, in which he wrote,

    I am, finally, so glad I never quit Belgium. This country allows for death on demand, for patients who are terminal or have a bad enough quality of life. It takes three doctors and a psychiatrist, in the second case, and four weeks’ waiting period. In the first case, it takes one doctor’s opinion.

    My dad chose this, and died on Easter Tuesday. Several of us his family were with him. It is a simple and peaceful process. One injection sent him to sleep, into a coma. The second stopped his heart. It was a good way to die, and though I didn’t know I was sick then, one I already wanted.

    I’m shocked that in 2016 few countries allow this, and enforce the barbaric torture of decay and failure. It’s especially relevant for cancer, which is a primary cause of death. Find a moment in your own jurisdiction, if it bans euthanasia, to lobby for the right to die in dignity.

    After his conditioned worsened last month, and as his chance of remission approached zero, on October 4th he tweeted:

    I’m choosing euthanasia etd 1pm.

    I have no last words.

    And with that, he died.

    I understand that we are created in God’s image. I understand the life matters, and that God is a God of life.

    But must we necessarily suffer when there is no remaining medical hope, and only agonizing pain and death remaining? I think of the Jewish militants at Masada during the rebellion against Rome: they all killed each other before Rome could capture, torture, and kill them. And they are not blamed for doing so.

    Is there a Biblical case for humanely ending suffering? I do wonder.

  2. Judah, thank you for a very relevant and thoughtful response. I read the entire “Protocol for Dying” that you mention above and found it moving and thoughtful as well, and also clearly formulated without any reference to the divine or to authoritative scripture.

    You end with the right question, though: “Is there a Biblical case for humanely ending suffering? I do wonder.”

    My goal in this blog wasn’t to build a biblical case *against* assisted suicide and euthanasia . . . at least yet. Rather my point is, first, that the current trend toward legalization is part of a larger story of aggressive secularization, which is rooted in denial of God as Creator. It’s the idea that our bodies are ours to manage, accessorize, and revamp as we see fit. I’m not attributing this superficiality to someone struggling with a painful terminal illness, but I am critiquing some of the advocacy for a right to die that I’ve seen.

    My second point is that without a reference to the Creator, without building a “Biblical case”, we don’t have a basis for weighing specific applications of humanely ending suffering. We don’t have a real basis to decide beyond a human-centered idea of minimizing pain and maximizing efficiency, and that is a dangerous thing.

    1. A couple of days ago I came across this quote from R. Avraham J Twerski (dated 1999) in his commentary on Pirkei Avot:

      “Just several years ago, we were struck with horror at the idea of physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia was considered abominable. Today, under various euphemisms, these have lost their opprobrium. State legislatures are now debating the issue of voluntarily terminating human life. . . a very radical change of attitude in just a brief period of time.”

      R. Twerski, who is a practicing psychiatrist, goes on to list some social and cultural reasons for this change, and then concludes: “While ethics and morals based on social needs may undergo change, Torah ethics and morals are immutable. No legislature, no rabbinical gathering, not even a Divinely inspired prophet can alter a single word of Torah. What was forbidden in the days of Sinai remains forbidden in the age of computer technology. Torah is identified with God Himself, and both are eternal.”

      Of course, anyone familiar with rabbinic thought understands that what is eternal and immutable in Torah is not a list of rules, but the underlying principles and the broad ethical picture that they bring into focus. We need to recognize and be compassionate toward the needs of the terminally ill, but Torah has to guide us in how that compassion is to be expressed.

      [Visions of the Fathers. Pirkei Avos with commentary by Rabbi Abraham J Twerski, MD. Brooklyn, NY: Shaar Press, 1999.]

  3. Interesting. And he’s right, underlying Torah principles don’t change. Twerski must believe, then, that one such principle is “no life must be taken, even if the suffering is great.”

    I’m personally unsure whether that is a Torah principle. But, I’ll defer to you (and Twerski) here and assume there’s no Biblical case for assisted suicide, even in extreme suffering through terminal illness.

    How then should we view the Jewish revolutionaries at Masada, who effectively committed assisted suicide and are praised for it by Torah-faithful people? Any thoughts, Rabbi Resnik?

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