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Killing Me Softly

Killing Me Softly

Has the sanctity of human life become passe?


The recent US Supreme Court decision concerning Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law was really about whether a federal drug-control law provided a US attorney-general the authority to punish a state's doctors for acting in accordance with a state statute. But by contending that physician-assisted suicide is a "legitimate medical purpose" for the prescription of a drug, there can be little doubt that the ruling helped bring the idea of abetting suicide a bit closer to mainstream thinking. That's a deeply unfortunate thing.

As it happened, the decision came exactly seven days after a New Jersey nurse who has confessed to killing 29 people decided to stop cooperating with investigators. Charles Cullen maintains that he has killed up to 40 people, many of them old and ailing hospital patients whom he injected with lethal doses of drugs -- like those that Oregon doctors have used to end the lives of more than 200 people.

And that was less than two weeks after CNN reported that several medical professionals were under scrutiny in an investigation by Louisiana's attorney-general into allegations that hospital workers had resorted to unauthorized euthanasia in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One doctor was reported to have gone from patient to patient with a handful of syringes, telling them, "I'm going to give you something to make you feel better."

Last year in The New England Journal of Medicine two Dutch physicians published a set of guidelines for infant euthanasia; one of the doctors has admitted to presiding over the killing of at least four babies by means of a lethal intravenous drip of morphine and midazolam (a sleeping agent).

To some, this is all just the march of progress. In the eyes of Judaism, though, it is a descent into a deep moral morass.

Although 12-year-olds in Holland already can, with their parents' approval, legally enlist doctors to kill them, the dispatching of sick babies remains illegal under Dutch law; the doctors hope that their proposed guidelines will provide a legal basis for such endeavors. Meanwhile, Belgium has enacted a euthanasia law similar to that of the Netherlands.

To some, this is all just the march of progress. In the eyes of Judaism, though, it is a descent into a deep moral morass.

Suicide is regarded by Jewish law as a sin, and helping a patient - even one that two doctors agree is likely to die within six months, and whom Oregon's law permits abetting -- to kill himself is acting as an accessory to the taking of a life. All the Torah's laws, in fact, with the exception only of three cardinal ones (idolatry, sexual immorality and murder), are put aside when life -- even for a limited period -- is in the balance.

Contemporary society, unfortunately, has a very different take. From the nearly nonstop portrayals of death and violence in what passes for contemporary "entertainment" to the all-too-real carnage on our cities' streets, the idea of human life as sacred has become increasingly unfashionable. In a world where youngsters regularly murder for a car, a pair of shoes or even just "for fun," or where women routinely decide to stop an unborn baby's heart to accommodate their own personal or professional goals, an elderly or infirm person's life just doesn't command the consequence it once did.

Nor have elements of the intelligentsia been hesitant to assist in human life's devaluation.

Peter Singer, for example, the famed professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, has proposed the termination (even without niceties like consent) of what he calls "miserable beings," people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure.

Asked by The New York Times recently what idea, value or institution the world takes for granted today he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, Singer responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life," which, he maintained, "will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."

On another occasion he went further still, predicting that once society jettisons "doctrines about the sanctity of human life," it will be "the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, [will be seen as] horrific."

We're not there, yet. But even in the United States, where there remains considerable public aversion to assisted suicide and euthanasia, doctors report that both occur in hospitals much more frequently than most of us realize.

The elderly and diseased are rapidly increasing in number. Modern medicine has increased longevity and provided cures for many once-fatal illnesses. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, divine gift than a commodity. And every businessman knows how important it is to turn over one's stock, to clear out the old and make way for the new. Whatever the legal future of assisted suicide -- the Supreme Court's recent decision may well move it into the chambers of Congress -- one thing is certain: The issue belongs firmly, and loudly, in the sphere of public discourse.

And American Jews, in consonance with their religious heritage, should be at the forefront of "choosing life." In ancient cultures that celebrated paganism and immorality, our ancestors stood up and apart. In the midst of a culture that devalues human life, we should be doing no less.


January 28, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 14

(13) Rachel, January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Who Makes the Law

I agree with Rabbi Shafran that Oregon should not have passed such a law. However, the people of Oregon voted for it overwhelmingly. So what is the alternative? A form of government in which the people of a state cannot decide these things?
Apparently, relatives of the profoundly ill in Oregon will have to be vigilant if they don't want their loved ones euthanized against their will in the form of coerced 'suicide'.

The same people who hold life so valueless also hold truth to be worthless, and have engaged in a smear campaign against Judge Alito - all because they fear that he may vote against Roe vs. Wade, which removed all the brakes from abortion on demand at any time.

(12) Andy, January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

whose life is it anyway?

There are times when a Torah Jew is greatly at odds with mainstream ideas and the Torah view often seems cruel by current standards. The more liberal agenda seems to promote a society where individuals have the right to choose what to do with their bodies without being informed that there is a right or wrong choice based on G-d's laws. As we have many citizens who so not accept G-d or his laws this makes sense thru their eyes.According to their reasoning the body belongs to the individual. I think that Torah Jews hold that the body is on "loan from G-d"The exapmle I was given is Abraham and Issac's willingness to return the body when asked by G-d to do so. There may be exceptions but as I understand it a society that does not attempt to influence one from choosing to terminate their life,abort their baby,or engage in a homosexual relationship is remiss in fulfilling their obligations and if not corrected will suffer the consequences.May we be blessed to create a just and G-d fearing/loving society and speedily merit redemption.

(11) Anonymous, January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Sanctity of human life can have different meanings

The thought that the traditional view of the sanctitiy of life is disappearing is very troubling. What is equally troubling is the view that the view of the sanctity of human life means only one idea.

Ask people who live with a deteriorating debility in the last stages of life whether the sanctity of their life means withering away until they die. Ask them whether letting them control the time of their death gives their life sanctity.

I understand that this cannot be done without numerous checks and balances. For example, my father is no longer my father. He suffers from extreme dementia. Unfortunately for us, his family, he is physically strong though mentally gone. It would benefit us, especially my mother who insists on taking care of him, for my father to die. As hard as it is for you to hear, it is much harder for me to say. HOWEVER, my father has no capacity to decide anything so we should NOT have the ability to make that choice for him. If he was physically ill, in the last stages of his life, and able to think clearly he should be able to make that choice. I would fight him to the very end but it is his pain and suffering that I must bow to, not mine.

Sarah, September 25, 2011 4:38 PM

Is it choice?

Patients who wish to end their life are already free to do so. A law is not needed for this. Physician-assisted suicide is a different matter altogether. A depressed elderly person who does not wish to be a burden on their family, (or heirs) can be bullied into ending their life. The Oregon law recommends counseling is provided to ensure consent, but there are no provisions for oversight to ensure this occurs. A terminal illness is defined as having less than six months to live. This is not end of life. People have recovered from illness in that amount of time, and advances in research may provide a cure for an illness that was previously considered terminal. The Oregon law is flawed and allows for abuse, yet is being touted as the model for other campaigns, notably in Vermont. In Vermont the governor accepted a campaign donation from "Death with Dignity." He is now personally lobbying the Senators to pass a similar law. We opposed this last session and turned out in number 4-1 against. Yet he, a Jew, persists in his campaign. He is not the only one. His Secretary of Health was quoted as saying this would be an effective cost cutting measure to balance the state budget be eliminating expensive palliative care for the sick, elderly and disabled. At this point, if the law passes, Shumlin will have served the interests of the donor group who contributed $100.000 to his campaign at a very efficient rate of about 60cents per Vermont citizen. For 60 cents my life hangs in the balance.

(10) Menashe Kaltmann, January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

We need to protest against Professor Singer's views

Thank you and Rabbi Safran for this timely article.

We need to protest against Professor Peter Singer's views.

I think when Peter Singer was teaching at Monash University here in Melbourne (Australia) he put forward many terrible views that almost equated human to animal life. The sanctity of human life should not be equated with animal life. Halacha recognises the need not to be cruel to animals but for Professor Singer to equate or even suggest the two is an absolute disgrace!

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