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Euthanasia

בס׳ד
י"ב חשון ה' אלפים תשע"א

 9 October 2010                                                                                      פ' נח   ‏ר"ח מרחשון תשע"א

 Euthanasia


A drasha by Rabbi Ian Goodhardt at Blake Street Hebrew Congregation

The debate about euthanasia is heating up in our country.  With their new-found place in the corridors of power, minor political parties are beginning to agitate for the restoration of laws allowing euthanasia in Northern Territory, which will inevitably lead to its introduction elsewhere.  The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne issued a statement against it this week and there is a feeling that now is the time for people to state their beliefs clearly and openly, and I want to do that today.

Euthanasia.  Assisted Suicide.  Mercy Killing.  It’s such a moral minefield, isn’t it?  Isn’t it?  Well – no, actually, it isn’t. 

The Torah is extremely clear on the matter.  After the flood, about which we have read today, G-d spoke to Noach and his sons in the following terms.  (It’s Chapter 9, if you want to follow along.)   He blessed them and told them to be fruitful and multiply.  He told them they could eat anything that grows and every type of animal, as long as they did not consume the blood.  The whole passage gave rise to what is known in Jewish tradition as the Seven Noachide laws, which apply to all humankind.  Some are alluded to, some stated quite explicitly such as this one: 

ו  שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ:  כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם.  6

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.
 
This is quite clear:  murder is a capital crime. No human may deliberately take the life of another, because we are all made in image of G-d and He alone who gave life has the right to take it.

Preceding this command is a perplexing passage, in which G-d asserts His responsibility for the lives of people.    וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם, מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו--אֶדְרֹשׁ, אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם.   and from the hand of man, even from the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man.

In this passage the phrase “even from the hand of every man's brother” seems superfluous.  Let the Torah simply say “from the hand of man I will require…”

The Ketav V’Hakabbalah explains as follows:  Miyad Adam speaks of man in his lowest form.  It resonates of man being nothing but earth, nothing lower.  And sometimes there are low motives for taking a life.  Revenge, greed, envy.  This is clearly prohibited. 

But the next phrase speaks of man’s higher calling.  It uses the term Ish, not Adam, which we know was used by Adam only after he had used the word Ishah, so it already speaks of man in terms of a relationship.  It refers to him as a brother, and, Cain and Abel notwithstanding, a brother will look out for his younger brother. 

HaKetav V’ Hakabbalah says that sometimes there are very high, very loving motives for wanting to end someone’s life.  One cannot doubt the sincerity of many of the pro-euthanasia campaigners, many of whom have seen loved ones die in terrible circumstances and who are moved by a genuine desire to want to spare others such a fate. 

Even if you are motivated only by love, only by the very highest of motives, our Torah tells us, this is a line you must never, never cross.

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.

It is a universal, unequivocal rule. Why is it so important?  In a secular age, how can we convey the idea of the sacred in a phrase like “human life is sacred.”  This was a question Rabbi Sacks struggled with in 2006 when legislation to legalise assisted suicide was before the British parliament. 

He writes:   Perhaps the easiest way of explaining it is that things that are sacrosanct are not ours to do with as we wish. The environment is one. Personal dignity is another. Human life is a third. The wisdom of the ages has taught us not to regard these things as if they were our personal possessions. Why?

The self-professed agnostic Friedrich Hayek explained it best in his last book The Fatal Conceit. He pointed out that human intervention in history has often been catastrophic. Yet those who came before us were not foolish. How did they make what seem in retrospect to be disastrous decisions?

Hayek's answer was the Law of Unintended Consequences, which says that whatever you foresee as the result of your choice is only a small part of the story. Decisions have ripples of consequence no one can predict at the time. Our knowledge of the future is unlike our knowledge of the past. We can see clearly in hindsight. But in the case of the future we can hardly see more than a few feet in front of our eyes.

Hayek held that the simplest way of avoiding catastrophe is to keep to a few simple rules - rules that have proved their worth by ensuring the survival of cultures that kept them. By far the longest-lived cultures are the great world faiths, and their rules are often in the form of basic prohibitions: "Thou shalt not".

To legalise assisted dying is fraught with dangers, chief of which is the deconsecration of life. The history of societies that have sanctioned euthanasia in the past is not an encouraging one. In part, Judaism and Christianity were protests against ages in which human life was held dispensable and disposable.

Almost ten years before that piece, the then Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the late Cardinal Basil Hume wrote a piece in The Times that I still remember as one of the clearest expositions on the subject. 

Without being able to quote him exactly, he referred to the love that parents have for their children.  He mentioned the now often-expressed wish of older people “not to be a burden”.  And he wondered what a dilemma that wish might place the sick old person in.  Were euthanasia to be an option on request, would it be responsible, would it be loving of an old parent not to request it? 

But even more telling was his concern that giving doctors the legal ability to kill people would fundamentally transform the relationship between that doctor and their patient.  Now, when you go to the doctor, you know that the only things they can do are to help to heal you and prolong your life.  When they have the opposite right as well, would you tell them how sick you really are?  Would you reveal symptoms that might be quite curable, but which give you a fear – rational or irrational – that you might be consigned to the “short stay ward.”

Knowledge from around the world shows us that lines and safeguards that have been written down where euthanasia has been legalised are crossed almost before the ink is dry.  As Andrew Bolt has written in the Herald Sun this week, doctors in Belgium have been found to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of patients because they felt asking the patient would be harmful.

Harmful for whom is not stated. It quickly becomes that sick joke:  We are going to put you out of our misery.

In an age where everything shifts, this line, this fixed point must never be crossed.  It is wrong to kill people and we must never say different. 

As the Chief Rabbi concludes: Those who propose the current bill do so from the highest of motives. But purity of motive has never ensured rightness of outcomes; often it has been the reverse. To give the dying dignity, using all possible means to treat their pain is one thing. To allow medically assisted suicide is another.

If we lose our reverence for human life we will one day lose much else besides.


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