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Op-Ed: Assisted living, not assisted dying

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In an Op-Ed for The Telegraph, the Chief Rabbi responds to the proposal for an Assisted Dying Bill, which would enable terminally-ill patients to seek medical help to end their life, should they wish it. We may appreciate the compassionate impetus driving the bill, but should instead look to encourage hope, not foment despair, he says.  

“In the light of our experience, Jews are particularly sensitive to the moral dangers of euphemism. We have seen prejudice cloaked in principle, bias masquerading as high-mindedness, and genocidal intentions dressed up in scientific, eugenic and economic language (most infamously, the “Final Solution”).

While I appreciate the honest and empathetic intentions that have led Lord Falconer to propose and others to support the Assisted Dying Bill, which is to receive its second reading in the House of Lords later this week, I am profoundly disturbed to see that it applies the neutral term “assisted dying” to killing, and that it contemplates permitting doctors to administer “medicines” which are in essence poisons.

In the light of Jewish tradition, this Bill seems to me to be misguided and dangerous. There is no greater value in Judaism than the sanctity of life. Life is the most precious of gifts. It is a gift from God and it is not ours to cut short. Life has an absolute value and its preservation takes precedence over other commandments. This is my guiding principle in approaching this life and death question.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently wrote so eloquently, our compassion must be extended not only to the particular suffering individual we see before us, but also to many others currently out of sight. We must be concerned with all those in our society who might be affected and that includes the old, the infirm, the most vulnerable among us.

I am, of course, aware of the limits built into the proposed legislation and the passionate and sincere arguments (which I respect) in its favour. The bill purports to limit its scope to cases of terminal illness (arbitrarily defined as an expectation of no more than six months’ survival), to apply to individuals with a clear and settled intention to end their own lives, to introduce an element of medical oversight and to make no fundamental change to other legislation. All of these asserted protections are profoundly problematic and fallible.

‘We must be concerned with all those in our society who might be affected and that includes the old, the infirm, the most vulnerable among us.’

Sadly, ours is a society in which many old people suffer ongoing abuses of trust (over half a million a year in England, asserts Action on Elder Abuse) often at the hands of family and so-called friends, with roughly half the cases having a financial motive. As a Rabbi, I have often come face to face with the feelings of isolation and worthlessness that the old and the terminally ill encounter. The right response is to offer as much hope, encouragement and support as possible to such sufferers, not to snuff out whatever light they may see at the end of the tunnel. In such circumstances morale supports and enhances life; despair extinguishes it.

I share the Archbishop’s rational and compassionate fear that the passing of this proposed bill will add to the pressure on the most vulnerable among us to relieve the financial and care burden on their families by opting for an exit. The very availability of such an option, an implicit endorsement by society of the view that those without long to live might not be worth sustaining, represents a betrayal of trust.

No-one can know for certain how long an individual life may last. The best doctors will admit that they have no powers of prophecy; estimates of life expectancy can be no more than educated guesses. Accordingly no one can know for certain how much or what quality of life is discarded when the most permanent of solutions is invoked based on the best information available at the time.

Jewish tradition teaches that one can merit the world to come through the work of a single hour. The second century Talmudic sage Ben Azzai taught us to despise no one, for there is no person who does not have his or her hour. He also taught that an individual is capable of love (of God) up to the very last breath of the soul. It is presumptuous to write a person off (and for our value system to countenance anyone writing himself or herself off) as incapable of further function or significance. I have often witnessed many remarkable individuals showing such dignity, determination and strength in the face of their greatest challenge. In some cases their last hours were their finest in terms of the inspiration they provided and the example that they set.

‘The bill would add to the pressure on the most vulnerable to relieve the financial and care burden on their families by opting for an exit’

This bill would fatally compromise the relationship between doctor and patient. Judaism has always reserved the highest respect for doctors. Human beings are partners of the Almighty in bringing life into the world and we are his partners also in healing, for the Almighty is portrayed in our sources as the great healer. Signing off the self-destruction of another human life is the antithesis of the sacred trust that the ill invest in the medical profession.

Palliative care and support can make a world of difference to both the emotional and spiritual health of the afflicted. While I recognize the honourable motivations of the proponents of this bill, I believe that its effects will be to hamper society’s ability to discharge its duty of neighbourly love and compassion. The focus of this initiative is profoundly misguided. Instead of promoting assisted dying we should be concentrating our attentions on assisted living.”


Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis