Orthodox rabbis join opposition to ‘death with dignity’

Orthodox rabbis join opposition to ‘death with dignity’

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

The District of Columbia is one step away from becoming the seventh jurisdiction in the country to pass a medically assisted suicide measure.

Despite growing acceptance of medically assisted suicide, a group representing more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis came out against the practice, calling it “murder.”

In a recent statement, the Rabbinical Council of America said it “vehemently protests legalizing any pathway for killing the ill, since society thereby supports and normalizes the act of murder.”

In addition, the organization called “for legislators and medical care professionals to reject or limit physician assisted death laws where they are proposed, as well as to seek their limitation and repeal where they are already law.”

The RCA also warned that legalizing medically assisted suicide may drive clergy away from the healthcare industry due to a conflict between religious beliefs and civil law, and the legislation will be used to prey on vulnerable individuals.

The group’s executive director, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said that the timing of the announcement, which followed the district government’s passage of the Death with Dignity Act, is purely coincidental.  

Dratch said that RCA members voted on resolutions at the end of the summer, and the organizing is gradually announcing each one, therefore the several month delay.

The council’s adoption of the Death with Dignity Act “only proves the importance of this issue and the necessity of the RCA voicing its opinion on the matter,” he said.

The Death with Dignity Act and similar laws allow certain people with terminal illnesses to buy prescribed medication to end their own lives. Proponents of the legislation say it allows the terminally ill to die peacefully and on their own terms. Critics argue that some patients will be pressured into ending their lives by relatives or physicians.

The D.C. Council in November voted 11-2 to pass the Death with Dignity Act of 2015. The bill was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser last month.

At press time, the bill had not been transmitted to Congress, which can sign a joint resolution of disapproval if it chooses, a legislative process unique to the District of Columbia. If the president does not sign the resolution of disapproval before a 30-day deadline expires, the law will take effect in October.

The RCA’s stance is popular among most Orthodox rabbis.

Jews oppose medically assisted suicide “as a default position. There are specific cases that need to be dealt with, but as a default position we oppose it and consider it murder,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, part-time interim rabbi of the Kesher Israel synagogue in the Washington neighborhood of Georgetown.

Although traditional Judaism prohibits medically assisted suicide, Milevksy said, each situation is different and must dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

For example, the best end-of-life decisions for a terminally ill young person may not be suitable for an elderly person.

The D.C. Council is one of several jurisdictions attempting to pass legislation that expand end-of-life options.

In Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, Sen. Daylin Leach (D) has introduced medically assisted suicide bills several times since 2007, most recently with Sen. Lisa Boscola (D), but the bills have never made it out of preliminary committees.

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, of Shaare Torah Congregation in Pittsburgh, agreed with the RCA’s resolution.

The RCA’s resolution “touches upon all the issues and succinctly states what is, and what should be, the Jewish attitude toward the issue” of medically assisted suicide, said Wasserman.

The rabbis interviewed for this story are Orthodox, but views on medically assisted suicide do not change from one denomination to another. Both the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis have previously made rulings on Jewish law that prohibit medically assisted suicide.

Even states whose populations seem to favor a death-with-dignity measure struggle to make it law.

A 2015 Rocky Mountain Poll survey found a majority of Arizonans favor the “right to die,” but a medically assisted suicide law has never gained momentum among legislators.

Rabbi Yossi Bryski, of Young Israel of Phoenix, echoed the sentiments of fellow rabbis concerning Jewish law, but was emphatic that he would not be driven away from chaplaincy duties by a change in legislation.

A law allowing a terminally ill person to end his or own life saw its first legislative win in 1994 in Oregon. Oregonians later defeated an attempt to nullify the law in 1997.  Since then a handful of states have followed, and most recently Colorado passed the law during the November elections.

States that have enacted a medically assisted suicide law or similar legislation include in addition to Oregon, Washington (2008), Vermont (2013) and California (2016).

Montana has not enacted such a law, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law does not prohibit a physician from honoring a terminally ill patient’s request to end his or her life. Both proponents and foes of the law have attempted to pass legislation since then but neither side has succeeded.

Justin Katz writes for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.