AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs urged his country’s government to drop plans to legalize assisted suicide for healthy individuals.
Jacobs was reacting to a statement made earlier this week in the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch lower house, by the country’s health minister announcing planned legislation designed to broaden existing laws on assisted suicide to include healthy people who no longer wish to live. The current law limits euthanasia to the terminally or chronically ill.
Jacobs’ opposition to euthanasia is based on religious laws on the sanctity of human life, which prohibit any intervention to end it, he said. Notwithstanding, he added Jewish law in some cases justifies avoiding interference to preserve life — especially in cases where such action only prolongs suffering with no plausible healing effect.
The proposed measure, he said, not only contradicts religious views on death but also risks causing unnecessary deaths of depressed elderly people whose death wish is only temporary.
“In the course of my work, I have seen not one, not two, but many elderly people who genuinely wished to die following the death of their spouses but then, within several years, were able to enjoy life for many years longer,” said Jacobs, the chairman of the ethics committee of Amsterdam’s Sinai Center, Europe’s only Jewish psychiatric hospital.
One case involved a woman who refused to eat or take medications following an infection.
“Then she was given antidepressants and within several weeks her pneumonia was gone, she recovered, and her depression, which hit while she was sick, was also gone,” the rabbi recalled. “I am the last person to downplay the pain felt by people who no longer wish to live, but we are morally forbidden from interfering and should do our utmost to help them and comfort them.”
In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia for patients who were suffering unbearable pain and had no prospects of a cure.
But the proposal to include healthy, elderly individuals in the laws on assisted suicide outraged several faith communities in the liberal country, including Roman Catholics.
The website Katholiek Gezin, or Catholic Family, published a scathing op-ed on Friday accusing the government of creating a reality in which many elderly citizens no longer wish to live and of trying to benefit financially from that reality.
“After many years in which the health system endured cutbacks that generated increasingly tragic situations of lacking assistance for our elderly, the Cabinet now comes up with a solution: Professional assistance to suicide for people who have ‘completed their lives,’” the op-ed read. It called the proposed legislation a “slippery slope” that risks allowing financial considerations cheapen the value of human life in a graying society.
But Edith Schippers, the Dutch health minister, said that assisted suicide also for healthy individuals is meant to address the needs of “older people who do not have the possibility to continue life in a meaningful way, who are struggling with the loss of independence and reduced mobility, and who have a sense of loneliness, partly because of the loss of loved ones, and who are burdened by general fatigue, deterioration and loss of personal dignity.”