RJ Magazine Top Menu

Debatable: Should We Support Physician-Assisted Suicide?

A congregant of mine had advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She lay in bed on a respirator, paralyzed, helpless, unable to control voluntary muscles. Her only means of communication was via an electronic monitor that responded to eye blinks. Her death was slow, painful, as her paralysis became total.

How much more humane it would have been to allow her to end her life quickly with her physician’s assistance!

Patients like my congregant need to be made comfortable through their final days. Yet for some, even treatment at the most supportive hospice or palliative care unit does not alleviate their physical and psychological pain. In these dire circumstances, it is not right to force a human being to suffer against his/her will. We should instead honor one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking—individual autonomy—and grant a patient the right to end his or her own life.

Some people have argued that legalizing physician-assisted suicide will open up the floodgates of Americans taking their own lives. However, in the past 15 years since Oregon passed the Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) allowing for physician-assisted suicide, only 935 people applied for DWDA prescriptions and just 596 patients used them to end their lives—evidence that physician-assisted suicide happens rarely, judiciously, and only in the most dire of circumstances.

And the truth is, because of quality-of-life concerns, the lives of many comatose and terminally ill patients are often terminated prior to what would have been their natural deaths. In every state, for example, families will remove feeding tubes from relatives in irreversible comas, and, similarly, individuals on dialysis will opt to cease dialysis. Families and doctors regularly “pull the plug” on the dying, albeit quietly, out of view.

It is time that we legalize this option for all patients who are needlessly suffering. This is the more humane response for our times.

Rabbi Phil Cohen is the rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. 

Rabbi Barry Block

Jewish law (halachah) is clear, and reaffirmed by our CCAR Responsa Committee: While we may withhold treatments that prolong the natural dying process, we may not take steps intended to hasten death (CCAR Responsum 5754.14). As liberal Jews, though, we go beyond the letter of halachah. I oppose physician-assisted suicide because it short-circuits the comfort and the deep spiritual meaning that can come from the natural process of dying.

I sympathize with PAS advocates, who understandably seek to spare patients pain and agony. However, in 20+ years as a rabbi ministering to dying congregants, I have learned two lessons:

  1. Suicide, assisted or otherwise, is not the only way to avoid the suffering that precedes death. Removing impediments to death, with quality hospice care, brings a peaceful death free of ventilators, feeding tubes, dialysis, or other interventions that slow life’s natural end.
  2. Congregations and families can ease suffering.

The meaningful alternative to euthanasia is hard work. Rabbis and caring congregants can offer their constant, supportive presence to those facing life-threatening illnesses. We can be knowledgeable about euthanasia alternatives. When we perceive suffering, we can suggest questions and concerns that families may pose to doctors. We may even advocate—with families and sometimes even directly with medical personnel—for transition to hospice care, increased pain medication, or psychiatric referral.

If we do not hasten death, we also have more time to explore each patient’s individual emotional and spiritual needs. We can ask, “Do you feel right with the people in your life, and with God?” We can discuss Judaism’s rich teachings about everlasting life, which can be as comforting as any palliative care. And when we pray together with the person who is dying and his/her loved ones, we can help our fellow human beings face eternity with faith and hope.

Rabbi Barry Block has been called to the pulpit of Congregation B'nai Israel, Little Rock, Arkansas beginning July 2013, after having served Temple Beth-El, San Antonio, Texas since 1992.