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For the week ending 15 November 2003 / 20 Heshvan 5764

Euthanasia

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Ira in Miami

Dear Rabbi,

Here in Florida the husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state won the right to 'pull the plug' and allow her to die. Her parents opposed this request. What is your position on the right to die and living wills in which a person leaves instructions for one's family to end life if one has no quality of life and/or is comatose and unable to make one's own decisions. Thank you.

Dear Ira,

Jewish law forbids euthanasia in all forms, which is considered an act of homicide. The life of a person is not "his". Rather, it belongs to God, the one who granted that life. Therefore it may be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life, at the time and under the circumstances that He wills. Despite one's noble intentions, mercy-killing is a flagrant intervention into a domain that transcends this world.

One source for this prohibition is in the verse: "But your blood of your lives will I require; ...from the hand of man, from the hand of a person's brother, will I require the life of man" (Gen. 9:5). After having stated "from the hand of man", the phrase "a person's brother" is redundant. This seeming redundancy refers to the prohibition against euthanasia. Although murder is the opposite of brotherly love, one might think that euthanasia is in fact a permitted expression of brotherly love. The verse thus implores that this particular form of "brotherly love" is nothing more than murder.

Nevertheless, one must not be lax about relieving the person's pain. Elimination of suffering is a commendable goal. In fact, this may permit even "aggressive" treatment of pain to a degree that is not standard medical practice. For example, heroin may be used to treat pain according to Jewish law, even though it may be prohibited by civil law. But by the same token, Jewish law certainly forbids euthanasia, even if it were to be permitted by civil law.

There are other considerations which are beyond the scope of this column, such as active vs. passive intervention, praying for a suffering person's death, and the definition and treatment of a moribund patient. These and other related topics may be further studied in the accompanying list of sources.

Sources:

  • "Judaism and Healing", J. David Bleich, Ktav Publishing House.
  • HaKtav v'haKaballah, ibid.
  • "The Jewish Attitude Towards Euthanasia", by Fred Posner; Jewish Bio-Ethics, by Fred Posner & J. David Bleich, Sanhedrin Press.
  • Jewish Ethics and Halacha for Our Time, by Basil F. Herring, Ktav Publishing.
  • Practical Medical Halacha - Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, Feldheim Publishing.
  • Medical Halacha for Everyone, Abraham S. Abraham, Feldheim Publishers.

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