Behind the Headlines: Most Jewish Ethicists Relieved by High Court Ruling on Suicides
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Behind the Headlines: Most Jewish Ethicists Relieved by High Court Ruling on Suicides

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The Supreme Court’s ruling that terminally ill people do not have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide comes as welcome news to most Jewish medical ethicists and legal activists.

“I understand the longing for a way out for people that are suffering,” said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, chaplain at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, which serves about 1,000 elderly Jews.

“I just happen to think this is the wrong way.

“There are an infinite amount of things that we can do to make the experience of dying better without putting in another human being’s hands the authority and the power to kill somebody,” she added.

In a unanimous 9-0 decision issued Thursday, the court upheld laws in New York and Washington state that make it a crime for doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients who no longer wish to live.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose wife died in 1991 after a long battle with cancer, wrote the main decision for the court in Vacco vs. Quill and Washington vs. Glucksberg.

He said the idea of someone helping another to commit suicide conflicts with “our nation’s history, legal traditions and practices.”

“The difficulty in defining terminal illness, and the risk that a dying patient’s request for assistance in ending his or her life might not be truly voluntary justifies the prohibitions on assisted suicide we uphold here.”

In most segments of the Jewish community, there is general agreement that the practice of physician-assisted suicide runs contrary to Jewish law.

A doctor’s first priority, most Jewish doctors and medical ethicists stress, is to save a patient’s life.

“From a Jewish perspective, doctor-assisted suicide is simply non-halachic; it violates a basic premise of Judaism,” said Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s bioethics institute and chairman of a bioethics advisory committee at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Yet at the same time, the conflict is that Judaism is extremely sympathetic to the easing of pain and suffering.”

Not everyone in the Jewish community holds Jewish law paramount in deciding this issue.

Indeed, Wolpe’s Conservative colleague, Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, was one of the plaintiffs in the suit challenging the New York law banning physician-assisted suicide.

Klagsbrun, chairman of pastoral psychiatry at JTS and a leading advocate on the issue in the Jewish community, has said in the past, “We do our best to ease their suffering in management techniques, but there is a small number who can’t respond and beg to die earlier. That population should not be abandoned, as I believe it is now.”

Klagsbrun, who was not available for comment when the decision came down, has said he regrets that his position goes against Jewish law, but maintain that doctors should be able to respond to suicide requests made by the terminally ill.

For his part, Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Reform movement’s committee on bioethics, emphasized that the issue is complex.

“You can’t sanction the taking of a life, but to leave the argument there misses the point,” Address said this week, speaking from Miami, where he was attending the annual conference of Reform rabbis.

Instead, he said, discussion needs to center around “how, in a responsible Jewish way, we deal with care for people who are at the end of their life and are in excruciating pain and suffering.”

He added, “This should spur synagogues to teach our people how to make responsible Jewish choices at the end of life.”

Friedman, who has spent time at the bedsides of countless people who are dying, agreed.

“We should stop putting our energy into how to end life” and instead focus on “how to use the resources we know about — physical and spiritual — to comfort those who are dying.”

While the right-to-die controversy has generated considerable debate in the Jewish medical community, most Jewish groups remained on the sidelines as the court was weighing in on the controversial issue.

Only Agudath Israel of America, which represents the fervently Orthodox, and the Orthodox Union filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the justices to uphold the right of state governments to outlaw physician-assisted suicide.

David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said he was disappointed that more Jewish organizations chose not to weigh in on the issue.

“We as a Jewish community ought to have some special sensitivities about it in view of the euthanasia movement in Nazi Germany,” he said.

Zwiebel also stressed that the ruling, while positive, should not cause “complacency among those of us who are concerned about the moral implications of the movement toward assisted suicide.”

Indeed, the court’s decision certainly will not be the last word on the issue.

By reviving state laws that had been struck down on appeal, the justices effectively turned the issue back over to the states.

Saying that nothing in the Constitution allows such a right, the justice left open the door for states to enact measures allowing for physician-assisted suicide.

“This is a victory in a battle, but the larger war remains to be fought, and it will be fought on a state-by-state basis in the years to come,” Zwiebel said.

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