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Orthodox Group Applauds Ruling in Missouri ‘right to Die’ Case

June 27, 1990
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Agudath Israel of America has welcomed the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Monday that states have the right to prevent the family of a comatose patient from removing life-sustaining equipment.

The Orthodox group had filed a brief in support of the state of Missouri, which had prevented the parents of Nancy Cruzan, a 32-year-old woman in a permanent vegetative state since a 1983 automobile accident, from removing the feeding tubes that have kept her alive.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, upheld the Missouri state Supreme Court’s ruling that because there was no “clear and convincing” evidence that Cruzan wanted to have the life-sustaining equipment withdrawn, her parents lacked the authority to have it done.

At the same time, Rehnquist indicated that a competent patient has a constitutional right to refuse such life-sustaining equipment.

But David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel, disputed the general interpretation that states could not intervene to protect the so-called “right to die.”

Zwiebel maintained the court ruling means that while there may be a constitutional right to decline life-sustaining measures, a state’s interest in protecting life can override the individual right.

To argue that the patient’s right “is unlimited is essentially saying that suicide is legal,” he said. “I don’t believe that the court has ruled clearly that an individual has an unlimited right.”


He said the case makes clear that the state is free to insist on clear and convincing evidence that an individual does not want to live if kept alive only by artificial means.

The Supreme Court found no such evidence in the Cruzan case, although the parents maintained that their daughter had expressed such a wish.

Zwiebel argued that even if the court made the “hypothetical assumption” that Cruzan would have had such a right, the decision “did not indicate it (the court) would indeed hold in favor of such a right where a state sought to restrict it.”

Zwiebel said that halachah, or traditional Jewish law, requires that the sanctity of human life is worth preserving, even when the quality of life is diminished.”

Halachah would allow a patient, in “certain extreme circumstances,” to request not to be hooked up to life-sustaining equipment, he said.

But there is no general rule, and each case would have to be treated on an individual basis and in consultation with a rabbi, he stressed.

William Rapfogel, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said his organization also believes that each case would have to be dealt with individually. There is no general position on this issue, he said.

Meanwhile, Agudath Israel is contemplating circulating a form within the Jewish community, in which an individual could ensure that if he or she became incapacitated, the treatment would be in accordance with halachah, Zwiebel said.

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