Euthanasia Case Becomes Moot, but the Debate Goes on in Israel

The family of a terminally ill man who died Saturday morning will continue to press its appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court for a ruling in principle that doctors may abide by a patient’s request to be put to death.

The case of Gideon Nakash raised legal, moral and political questions as he lay dying at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, paralyzed in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. Kept alive by a respirator, he was able only to blink his eyes. With them, he repeatedly sent messages to his family, begging “let me die.”

His family, appearing on radio and television, urged that his suffering be ended. Leaders of the medical profession discussed the issue in the news media and before Knesset committees. The talk focused not only on Nakash but on the idea of euthanasia in general.

The debate is similar to one under way in the United States for the last decade since the case of a comatose New Jersey woman named Karen Ann Quinlan first surfaced. But in Israel, the issue is complicated by Jewish ethics, which traditionally have urged that maximum efforts be taken to save a life.

In the Israeli case, the Nakash family and its attorney, Itshak Hoshen, who heads the Israel Euthanasia Society, appealed to the high court a month ago to override a Health Ministry decision to deny Nakash’s request.

A five-member panel of justices was appointed last week to hear the case. But Nakash, 53-year-old father of two, died a natural death a few days before the panel was to convene.

RULING BEING SOUGHT IN PRINCIPLE

The appeal thus became moot. But Nakash’s wife instructed Hoshen to delete her late husband’s name as the appellant and seek a declaration in principle. They want the court to rule that a request to die should be honored and if the patient is in a coma or otherwise unable to communicate, a court-appointed guardian may make the request.

Most physicians expressed the opinion that Nakash should be detached from his life-supporting breathing machine. None would comment, however, on the family’s proposal that he be given a lethal injection or an overdose of sleeping drugs.

Nakash’s daughter Tsila explained on Israel Radio Sunday that removal of the life-support system — passive euthanasia — would have caused her father to die slowly and painfully from suffocation. She said that was foreshadowed on several occasions when his air pipe loosened for a moment or two and he began to choke.

She and her mother praised the medical and nursing staff at Kaplan Hospital, who had done their best to keep Nakash as comfortable as possible.

Attorney Hoshen plans to employ a new appeals procedure that allows a member of the public to appeal to the Supreme Court for a ruling on a matter of principle where no particular individual is involved.

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