Jewish tradition can embrace aid in dying

I was distressed when the Compassionate Choices Act (AB 374) stalled in the California Assembly in June. AB 374 would permit a physician to write a prescription to medicate a dying person if he or she is mentally capable. It would allow death to come quickly and peacefully, in a humane and dignified manner. That is compassionate medical assistance when the patient’s disease can be neither cured nor adequately palliated. 

Fortunately, the nonprofit Compassion & Choices knows that dying people need help. In the absence of any clear-cut law that stands up for these patients, the national organization has announced that it is expanding and enhancing its client-support program. The End-of-Life Consultation program will help clients access hospice, pain treatment and other excellent end-of-life care, enlarging its volunteer teams in California in the process. End-of-Life Consultation can prevent suffering, violence and other harm.

We are not talking about assisted suicide here. We are speaking of death with dignity. There is no question that Jewish law and tradition reject suicide, prohibit murder and accept pain and suffering as part of the human condition.

The tradition is less clear when it comes to a person who is already dying of a terminal disease. For example, the Talmud relates the story of the death of a great sage, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi. The rabbi is suffering greatly but his students are praying with fervor in the courtyard to keep him alive. Out of compassion for his suffering, his maidservant drops a jar from the rooftop, stunning the students into silence, at which point the rabbi dies.

This story has been used to justify the removal of life support, certainly validating the patient’s right to a death with dignity and without unbearable pain.

If we allow caregivers to remove life support, why can’t we also give patients of sound mind the right to affect how they will die? They are not committing suicide if they choose to hasten their death in the last few months of their lives. They certainly would choose to live if they could, but that is not a choice available to them. The cancer, leukemia, ALS or other disease is the real agent of death.

Judaism certainly considers palliative care an appropriate measure to take at the end of life. Unfortunately, in many cases palliative care is not sufficient to ease a patient’s pain and suffering.

Do we really feel that life is so precious that we should deny someone who suffers from constant, agonizing pain the right to end the torture? As modern technology continues to make dramatic advances, we need to reconsider just whose interest is served by prolonging the agony of the terminally ill, and whether preserving these lives, against the will of those who suffer, is truly in line with Jewish ethics and tradition.

I believe that the right of the terminally ill patient to make their own end-of-life choices fits squarely within our religious tradition and morality.

That’s why I support Compassion & Choices’ End of Life Consultation Service.

End-of-life decisions manifest a person’s values and spiritual beliefs cultivated throughout his or her life. If a terminally ill patient is suffering a kind of hell on earth, and wants to put an end to his or her ordeal, I think it is my responsibility as a religious leader to figure out an ethical way to help that patient. I believe it is my job to help people approach death in peace, and I applaud Compassion & Choices for providing patients with dignified options.

Suzanne Singer, former rabbi of Temple Sinai in Oakland, is director of the Introduction to Judaism program for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism. To learn more about Compassion & Choices, visit www.compassionandchoices.org.