Monday, 9 January 2012

The commission for assisted dying is wrong

Rabbi Akiva Tatz's book dealing with end of life issues

There are some values that we must not compromise.

A theoretical case:

Imagine a man jumps off from the top of the Empire State Building to his almost inevitable death. On the way down a person standing on the eightieth floor, who is an expert marksman sees him and shoots. He kills him, and by the time he hits the ground he is already dead. So there were only seconds from the time he has shot him till the time that he would have hit the ground. Is the person guilty of murder?

In Jewish law the gunman would be found guilty of murder (as long as it could be proven according to Halacha)
It sounds a bit strange. The person was going to die anyway. Why should the gunman be guilty of something that would have happened seconds later in any case?
The reason is that notwithstanding that this man had only seconds to live, nevertheless the short life that he has left to live is of infinite value, to take the few seconds of life left away from that person is, according to all opinions deemed murder.
It’s got nothing to do with the length of time that a person has left in this world or even the quality of that life, actively assisting a person in taking his/ her life is tantamount to murder.

This law is encapsulated in the laws of the Goses; a dying person who has only a very short time to live.
 Maimonides in the Laws of Aveilut says: A Goses is considered to be alive in every respect. Whoever touches him is considered to be a murderer… whoever closes his eyes as he dies is a murderer-one should wait a short while as perhaps he is in a swoon.

If, in the case of a Goses whose life is very limited (in most cases a person remains a Goses for only 72 hours) one is not allowed to actively assist the dying, how much more so in a case when a person has some time to go, that we not assist in a persons demise.

Last Thursday the Commission on assisted Dying came out with the following declaration: “The current legal status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent”

This commission was set up by the government in November 2010.  It does not mean that any of its findings will become law. What it does promote is a change in the law that on the advice of two physicians a lethal dose of medication should be prescribed to somebody who has found his/her life too difficult to bear because of the terminal and agonising nature of his/her condition.

It was interesting to hear the arguments pro and con. Very damning was the fact that there was no declaration from the BMA- the British Medical Association. One would immediately have thought that if it were doctors who were asked to administer/prescribe the lethal drug that at least they would be in agreement with this. In discussion with a few doctors from my community, I learned that doctors in general feel very unhappy about this proposal. Doctors are there to heal, not to help people to die. Writing a prescription for death goes against the Hippocratic oath which binds a doctor to help heal and alleviate the suffering of his patients.

There is of course the slippery slope argument: which is, if you allow cases of assisted suicide that are justified who is there to protect those who are vulnerable who cannot make the decision, could we be going down the root of Nazi eugenics?

But Judaism takes it one step more. The value of Life is inestimable. You cannot actively shorten life. You cannot justify suicide.

So what can we do?

I believe that to alleviate suffering in end of life cases, we need to focus our attention on palliative care. 

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